Alejandro Escovedo Benefit featuring Chris Tait , Bob Egan , Don Kerr , Kurt Swinghammer , Stephen Fearing and others, at the El Mocambo (464 Spadina), Wednesday (October 1), 8 pm. $15. 416-777-1777. Rating: NNNNN
While it's widely known that singer/songwriter Alejandro Escovedo is among the finest storytellers connected with the alt-country genre he helped pioneer, few people are aware he's been living with hepatitis C. That's understandable, since he's not the sort to make an issue of his health problems - I've seen him walk onstage when he's been too sick to speak - but it became an issue on April 26, when he collapsed after a performance of By The Hand Of The Father in Phoenix.
Rushed to a local hospital suffering from massive internal bleeding, it took an emergency blood transfusion to keep him alive. But with a typically brave face, Escovedo manages to find a silver lining even in a close brush with death.
"I'm lucky," reasons a weakened Escovedo convalescing at home in Canyon Lake, Texas. "Two days later I was supposed to be on a plane to Norway to start a 14-day European tour. If I'd made that flight, I probably wouldn't be talking to you right now."
Eventually, Escovedo will need to figure out what to do about his badly damaged liver, but for the next three months he'll be on interferon to combat his viral infection, followed by a further six months of interferon if it's working.
The combination of the debilitating sickness and the almost as devastating treatment has left him with barely enough strength for a daily walk with his wife, poet Kim Christophe. But it hasn't stopped him from thinking about new songs.
"The themes have mostly been pretty dark - big surprise, huh?" he says with a chuckle. "Hey, you know me. That's just the place I tend to go when I write."
Since Escovedo has no health insurance and no gigs scheduled until SXSW 2004, his management - to help defer the enormous medical costs - is planning an all-star tribute album modelled after the Sweet Relief benefit discs for Victoria Williams and Vic Chesnutt.
In the meantime, fundraising concerts have sprung up from New York to Seattle, involving a broad range of musician friends and fans.
Toronto artists are stepping up with a similar celebration of Escovedo's music, hosted by MuchMusic's Diego Fuentes at the El Mocambo Wednesday (October 1). It involves Kurt Swinghammer, Chris Tait, Bob Egan, Stephen Fearing, Don Kerr, John Borra, Shannon Lyon, Bill Priddle, Alun Piggins and others.
The benefit also features the debut of Gord Cumming's new band, FYATHYRIO (an acronym for Fuck You And The Horse You Rode In On), and a closing performance by the ever-mutating Cryin' Out Loud Choir.
"I've always done my music for other people and never expected anything in return," says Escovedo, clearly moved by the show of support, "so the idea of all these people getting together on my behalf is overwhelming. Did you hear that Ian Hunter, Levon Helm and Lenny Kaye played at the New York show? That's amazing!
"In some ways I feel kinda embarrassed, but it's obviously done out of love. Just thinking about it is giving me more strength to get through the bad days. It's working. I hope everyone there in Toronto knows how truly grateful I am."
Direct donations to Alejandro Escovedo's benefit fund can be made at www.alejandrofund.com