Over the course of the last 20 years, Calexico have proved themselves to be one of most consistent bands around, releasing albums that have never strayed too far from their original blueprint. But such stability sometimes comes with risks. Initial listens to last year’s Edge Of The Sun album prompted deliberation over whether it was yet another career-augmenting offering or whether it drifted close to a sound that, perhaps unfairly, could be described as Calexico by numbers. Their appearance at this year’s La Linea festival at the Barbican however was to swiftly dispel such overly critical thoughts.
Support comes from Gabby Moreno (effectively a member of Calexico for this tour). The early stages of her set suggest the audio equivalent of sipping cocktails on a sun-bleached beach whilst being gently buffeted by a sea breeze. It’s an enjoyably undemanding, feather-light experience that is only really moved up a notch when Calexico join her on stage for a version of Across The Borderline by Ry Cooder.
In many ways, with their well-practised live performances and exemplary musicianship, Calexico have become representative of the idea of the modern American alternative guitar band (even if an equally strong Mexican influence has always been an integral part of their sound). While the days of them appearing on stage with 20-man strong mariachi bands may have passed for now (possibly due to the sheer expense of sustaining them with tequila, as hinted at tonight by frontman Joey Burns) both of their musical sides are in evidence in the early stages here, especially in the new songs.
Falling From The Sky is bathed in beams of sunshine, sounding gloriously untroubled as trumpets call out around it. Cumbia de Donde meanwhile lays down a Latin flavoured marker with its buzzing keyboard line and shifting grounds. Bullets And Rocks strikes a grittier, more politicised tone, with Burns describing it to be about the ‘human connection’ and acknowledge the global refugee crises of recent years.
Splitter and Two Silver Trees are two highlights from the recent Calexico catalogue and both are played tonight. The former fares strongly, all bright, bouncing melodies and flowing momentum but disappointingly, the latter struggles a little live, sounding somewhat muted and lacking the sparkle and lift-off of the album version. There’s another interesting contrast later between the dark, inward-looking guitar counterpoint of World Undone and the uninhibited Latin projections of the trumpet-led No Te Vayas. In amongst this Burns shifts the dynamic furthermore by performing Fortune Teller on stage alone.
Moreno reappears to contribute vocals for arguably two of the strongest tracks from Edge Of The Sun – a deliciously melodic Moon Never Rises and a similarly effortless Miles From The Sea. The carefree instrumental Coyoacán recalls Feast Of Wire, still arguably their most accomplished album to date, and one that is called upon tonight during the encores (a snaking, celebratory Güero Canelo is followed by an warm, unamplified version of Across The Wire, all band members, under minimal lighting, gathered as close to the crowd as the stage allows). Beforehand, we got confirmation that Crystal Frontier remains their musical calling card, still a blazing procession of brass and energy.
In recent years they’ve regularly covered Alone Again Or by Love, pretty much making it their own in the process, but tonight they omit it in favour of playing a remarkable and unexpected version of Five Years by David Bowie, with Moreno key in making it sound so impassioned and exclamatory. Similar can be said of the preceding Beneath The City Of Dreams which marries anthropological narratives to bold and colourful musical arrangements.
The only real dips come during the moments when an overly self-conscious crowd fails to fully engage with Burns’ requests for interaction, most specifically during a cover of Corona by The Minutemen. Ultimately, however, these moments are forgotten, and both encores are received vociferously and (importantly) standing. As well as being an excellent show in its own right, tonight also serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t take Calexico for granted – no one does this blend of music as well as them, and after twenty years they’re only getting better.