28th March | Colston Hall
The swirl of dust from the arid desert floor, the crack of dry gulch and the buzzard’s cry takes a little time to seep through Calexico’s sound tonight, but when it does those cactus needles quiver. The penultimate show in their European spring tour, and one of only two UK appearances, tonight was moved from the Trinity Centre across town because of the popularity of these Tex-Mex Americana troubadours.
Before they take the stage, the Mexican Institute of Sound play thirty minutes of samples and street rhythms, mixed with potent traditional Mexican sauce: a veritable fajita of traditional sounds with hip-hop and funky flavours. Main man, Camino Lara and his two cohorts are joined by Calexico’s own frontman, Joey Burns, guitarist Martin Wenk and steel-pedalist, Jairo Zavala to spice up their final number.
Then it is Calexico. Twenty-odd years and nine albums on. And, as if worn down by the days in the saddle, they start a bit too slowly – in the sense of a bit too polished and safe, not as inventive and swooningly edgy as they can be. The reggae pop of ‘Under The Wheels’, from new album The Thread That Keeps Us, while still having a great blast of mariachi trumpet, is still not what we expect from Calexico.
In fact, the new record, while rightly lauded, sees them veering off into fewer of those indie mariachi innovations that they are so loved for and into a wider sound, taking in a crossover of Americana and alt-rock. This is a band seeking a wider audience than ever, but hopefully not letting that reach dilute the beautifully-crafted rawness that makes them so special.
To lift concerns, mine at least, the swirling and surreal drama of ‘Frontera/Trigger,’ from the mists of 1998, plucks at the reins, and from there we don’t really let go.
A lot of the new album obviously gets played – ten numbers off the double album – and they still have that desert heart within the new trappings to pull us in and seduce us with the sound they make. The trumpets pierce the air; the double bass, keyboards, accordion and drumming by the other founder of the band alongside Burns, John Convertino, create a depth that infests their music and their songs. Martin Wenk doesn’t just play guitar either; he’s a multi-instrumentalist.
For all the worldliness of the new material, the crowd anthems of ‘End of the World With You’ and ‘Eyes Wide Awake,’ there are old gems like the rough and wide-rollin’ ‘Ballad Of Cable Hogue’ which also influence the new. ‘Flores Y Tamales’ is a case in point, reaching back into their roots, their Californian/Texan hybrids, and taking from them. There is a flourish of such bold sensuous Latino numbers, especially towards the end of tonight’s show. The addition of Camino Lara to the line-up ensures occasional nods to modern street sounds.
‘Girl in the Forest’ is gentle, with its environmental messages. Burns, in his funny and warm in-between song patter, tells us how he wouldn’t mind moving, lock stock and barrel, over here to get out from under Trumpism. ‘The Town and Miss Lorraine’ is pure, sentimental, yet intelligent, country gold.
Their set ends with 2000’s marvellously cinematic ‘Crystal Frontier.’ They sound a bit like Talking Heads in their encore, with the funky undertow of ‘Another Space,’ but deep down the desert sands and wide-open spaces are still the biggest part of their appeal.