Alejandro Escovedo has been making memorable music of one kind or another since the mid-'70s, but it wasn't until he released his first solo album in 1992, Gravity, that he began to reveal the full extent of his gifts as a songwriter. A lyricist with a remarkable ability to find subtle beauties and difficult truths in the stuff of everyday lives, Escovedo also has a superb ear for a melody, whether he is writing for a small acoustic group or a roaring full-on rock band, and Gravity was nothing short of a revelation, with his subsequent albums only confirming Escovedo's talent. In April of 2003, it was announced that Escovedo had been diagnosed with potentially deadly Hepatitis C; adding to this dire news was the fact that, like many artists and musicians, Escovedo had no health insurance to help pay his extensive medical bills. It's a telling indication of the respect with which Escovedo is held as an artist and as a person that friends and admirers around the country began organizing benefit shows to help the songwriter in his time of crisis, a grassroots effort that eventually grew into the album Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo, a sprawling two-disc set whose proceeds benefit the Alejandro Escovedo Medical and Living Expense Fund.
Por Vida features no fewer than 31 newly recorded covers from Escovedo's songbook, as well as a new tune Alejandro recorded for the occasion, and the list of participants includes at least three of Escovedo's musical heroes (John Cale, Ian Hunter, and Ian McLagan), several frequent collaborators (Jon Dee Graham, Charlie Sexton, Chris Stamey), and a list of admirers and well-wishers whose musical spheres range from pop (Jennifer Warnes) to blues (Charlie Musselwhite) to jazz (Pete Escovedo and Sheila E.) to Tejano (Rubén Ramos) to alt-country (Son Volt, who reunited for their contribution here), with any number of other sounds represented along the way. Given the almost dizzying variety of artists and styles encompassed on Por Vida, what's most remarkable about the album is how consistent it is; the quality of these songs is a given, but the performances are strong and emphatic from front to back, as if the musicians wanted to be sure that they gave the songs the interpretations they deserved. And despite the leaps from genre to genre, the voice of Alejandro Escovedo rings out clear and present on every track, and it's good to be able to report that his own track, "Break This Time," is a hearty rocker that pays no mind to his difficult circumstances. It would have been easy for Por Vida to come off as just another benefit set or tribute disc, with plenty of well-meaning but tossed-off performances from musicians who were easy to round up at the moment, but thankfully that's not how it turned out -- instead, it's a loving homage from a group of gifted artists to one of their own, and the result speaks not of illness or death, but of music created "por vida"...for life.