As part of the Barbican’s Further Beyond Nashville festival, Arizona’s border town boys Calexico breezed into the central London barn with a movie soundtrack that never was, a thing at once of melancholia and upbeat Mexicana. An early start allowed for an extended set of over two hours – and we’d soon see how that almost didn’t seem long enough.
To the uninitiated, those expecting a morose evening of alt.country music were probably enjoying the first few songs, played by lynchpin guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns, a double bassist, a drummer, a lap steel guitar player, a trumpeteer and an all-round musician who alternated between trumpet, xzylophone, accordian, melodica and seemingly whatever else came to hand.
Different enough to the guitar band format, the music spoke for them as the Barbican’s audience found themselves transported from drizzly London to somewhere with a big sky, some scorpions, a few snakes and sand as far as the eye can see. Just about every track sounded like it had been hauled from a film soundtrack. And with eyes closed, you could almost have been in the American south west.
And that was before Calexico were joined on stage by Mariachi Luz de Luna, a rather different band from Arizona, who nonetheless complimented Calexico beautifully. Dressed in mariachi uniform, Luz de Luna utterly dominated the rest of the set. Guitarists, violinists and brass players alike added drama and spectacle, with lead trumpeteer Jacob Valenzuela offering up his sister’s vocal talents and his guitarists’ efforts at solo vocal work – all of which rather left Calexico in the shade somewhat. Yet the band seemed not to mind, for the intention of this show – their second at the Barbican following the inaugural Beyond Nashville last year – was to host musicians who together could conjure up the moods, images and landscape of the desert border landscape. They succeeded beautifully.
At one stage, all the trumpeteers – from both bands – found their way to different corners of the hall, taking it in turns to appear under spotlights and play to each other across the delighted heads of the audience. Despite one encore coming and going, the set continued, largely in two equal halves, with the Mariachi leader offering instrument explanation and showmanship in equal measure, leading a band of technical excellence and plenty of style.
Calexico offered up new songs, as did Luz de Luna, collaborations were tried, each played their own music together and seperately and, with a special guest vocalist – singing in French! – adding even more to what Valenzuela called a “stew” of music, it was almost too much to take in. That the entire band were from Arizona, rather than Mexico, was all the more intriguing – the sound made could not be called indie American or traditional Mexican, for it was a successful fusion that created something all of its own.
Much better this format than the traditional support band followed by headline band line-up – it felt like the show had been put together just for us. And as it had, the standing ovation was the least the audience could do. We left feeling special, enlightened, entertained – and determined to hear more of both acts.