Tuscon’s Calexico visited our fair city last Thursday with a performance that traded as much on reflecting genuine human emotion as on musical talent - and given the talent of this band, that's saying something. The evening swayed from tense, throbbing numbers to mariachi-seeped dance songs, and showcased the multinational influences at work throughout the band’s long history. Known primarily for their Tejano/mariachi/Latin folk flavor, Calexico’s live show highlighted the way the band places components from multiple genres into one big stockpot and then alternates the heat from slow burn to boil.
Opening with “Epic” from the newly-minted Algiers, Calexico reminded audience members that music need not be a bombastic, screeching affair to still be able to place a firm hand on the back of your neck and make you pay attention. The song starts with a gentle yet driving guitar line and single-beat snare strike, then lead singer Joey Burns comes in and wraps his smoky voice around your shoulders with pleading, grasping lyrics. While traditional mariachi focuses on layered, tight instrumentation, Calexico unravels that construct and tucks a layer of tension under every thread, while managing to keep the framework of Mexicali music in place.
In keeping with the blueprint for the evening, the trumpet section moved to the forefront of the stage like lead singers for “Across the Wire.” While the horns were crisp and the upright bass on that track were in perfect synch with one another, the accordion was lost in the depth - fortunately, that was corrected in the songs that followed and the accordion was given its rightful place at the helm. At one point, Burns tried to give the audience a history lesson on German influences in Latin music, starting with the accordion, but then he just laughed and moved into the next song, realizing that no one really wants a lecture when instead you could be listening to Calexico.
On stage, six people put out enough sound for twelve, in part because it seems like every member of the band is capable of playing anyone else’s instrument. Jacob Valenzuela may play trumpet for a song or two, then pick up the accordion, while Martin Wenk, who’s played accordion all night, switches to a full keyboard. The only two band members who stayed somewhat consistent with instrumentation throughout the evening were Burns and co-founder/drummer John Convertino.
Not surprisingly given their base in Arizona, Calexico’s musicianship evokes the desert, with songs that are not so much driving as chugging. The band has drawn from Iron and Wine-esque sensibilities in song structure, but their music is obviously much more complex. "Para,” also off Algiers, is lush, gorgeous, and ominous, and quite honestly it’s almost too intense and intimate to be experienced standing around with a bunch of strangers in a dark, dark room. Burns has admitted in interviews that the song was almost cut from the album for being “too confessional,” but thankfully it slunk its way on there because it’s one of the most beautiful songs released this year, and performed live it was just devastating. Comparisons to Iron and Wine are obvious, based on the bands’ collaborations and the flayed, open wound feel to their music - Calexico takes Latin folk music and adds indie angst to every undernote - but even that designation is shallow in comparison to what’s at hand here.
After a few more bleak, angsty songs, Calexico brought the crowd back into hand-clapping form with “Alone Again Or,” off the 2004 EP Convict Pool. The band then finished the set with “Puerto,” which combines a full complement of horns, keyboards, and enough dark minor chords to score a flanx of vampire movies. After a quick break the band reappeared to play “Sinner in the Sea,” which is unfortunately a flat song indistinguishable from 50 others just like it, but the tempo went right back up for “Inspiracion.” At end of what we thought was a three-song encore, Burns said good night, told us the band loved us, but then instead of leaving the stage, they played “The Vanishing Mind,” which is the moody closing track from Algiers. While Calexico poured energy into the middle encore selections, at the end they went back to their roots - slow, wrenching, and haunting.