Calexico are unique in today’s indie music scene. The Tucson, Arizona-based band blends rock and roll and Americana with influences of the American Southwest and the Mexican border, in particular from the Tejano and Mariachi traditions, to create a sound that is all their own and instantly recognizable. Core members Joey Burns and John Convertino have been at it for quite some time now, with over two decades in the band under their belts. They released The Thread That Keeps Us, their ninth regular album (not counting their many EPs, self-released side projects, soundtracks, and live albums over the years), earlier this year to universal critical acclaim. Their tour brought them to Washington, DC on Friday, where they played at the Lincoln Theatre to a dedicated crowd of fans.
Calexico has been making their brand of Latin American-inflected indie rock for 20 years now. The Tuscon, AZ-based group, consisting of core the duo of Joey Burns and John Convertino along with a rotating cast of contributors, released their eighth studio album, Edge of the Sun, earlier this year. On Friday last week they came to the 9:30 Club, filling the stage as a seven-piece band.
As a songwriter, Burns is an expert at evoking the sense of another time and place, whether it be the otherworldly desertscapes of “Miles From the Sea” or the street party atmosphere of “Cumbia de Donde” and “Guero Canelo.” And so for an hour and a half, the audience was transported, from the deserts of Arizona to the streets of Mexico and everywhere in between. On “Esparanza,” one of the bonus tracks from the deluxe edition of the new album, Burns ceded the vocals to trumpet-player Jacob Valenzuea, and on several other songs including “Moon Never Rises” and “Beneath the City of Dreams” he was joined by Guatemalan-born singer Gaby Moreno (who also served as the opening act for the show).
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.
Are your brain, ears, and eyes still recovering from the 9:30 Club’s Matt & Kim double freak-out on Tuesday and Wednesday? Or does tension from your shitty job and the odd guy sitting too close to you on the Metro have you on edge and feeling like you need a vacation south of the border? Then slide on down to the 9:30 Club tonight for the lush desert sounds of Tuscon’s Calexico and give your body a much needed mini-break. Formed almost 20 years ago from a collection of ridiculously talented musicians, Calexico combines textured melodies with Latin instrumentation and flair, and what results is a smooth, smoky sort of cool floating on top of raw tension building underneath. The band plays a mixture of alt-country and Tejano-twinged folk, with a raucous horn section, accordions, occasional bells, and a bunch of other stuff you probably haven’t seen on stage before. D.C. is privy to only the second night of their latest tour, so don’t miss out.
Calexico’s new album Algiers is multi-layered, multi-instrumented, and multi-awesome, and tickets for tonight are still available HERE.
It’s going to be a swaying, grooving, let’s-go-sit-in-the-desert-and-look-at-stars kind of night.