As the festival season draws to a close,evenings get darker and the air holds the first tentative signs of autumn, a crowd gathers outside Kentish Town’s Forum awaiting one last taste of summer. Since their first album in 1996 Calexico have been taking the sounds of balmy nights on the Californian and Mexican border and turning it into foot-tappingly evocative music. New album Algiers has reminded the faithful of what a thrilling and unpredictable band Calexico can be, and tonight people are ready for some good old fashioned fun.
To set the scene, support comes in the form of Laura Gibson. The surprisingly large crowd might have been caused by a scheduling delay, but the concentration and enthusiasm which Gibson received suggested that the hype surrounding her latest LP, La Grande, is justified. A rather frumpy dress and secretary-glasses belie the impact her timeless and soaring voice can create. Slightly twee Americana doesn’t always translate in the UK, and at times songs did meander into somewhat tuneless folky crooning, but by the end of her set Gibson had turned the Forum into a smoky mid West bar. Her songs and manner were instantly lovable, and an astonishingly assured and powerful rendition of Where Did You Sleep Last Night? caught the attention of everyone in the room.
By the time Calexico took to the stage the audience were in a state of heady anticipation. Wearing a short sleeve chequered shirt, lead singer Joey Burns looks somewhere between a lumberjack and a geography teacher (how good would that class be!) rather than a rock star. However, as soon as he and the rest of the band launched into their first song it became clear that this was a band who know what they’re doing. Tight, professional and thrilling, the opening trio of Epic, Across the Wire and Splitter proved to be a manifesto for Calexico’s set; concentrating on material from Algiers whilst throwing in old favourites. they were full of intense purpose and gave the adoring crowd exactly what they wanted – perfectly constructed songs and a barnstorming good time.
The mix of Mexican and American influences which typifies Calexico completely works. Trumpet blasts, accordion solos and snatches of Spanish sit comfortably beside more familiar conventions (indie-folk Fortune Teller is a glorious highlight), giving the impression of a band sat confidently astride two great musical traditions, defined by neither but delighting in both. All is centred around their oddly transfixing frontman – the band play in a semi-circle around him – although he becomes a beaming member of the band when Spanish singer Jairo Zavala takes lead singing duties on one self-penned song halfway through the set.
It doesn’t always work. Instrumental numbers much loved by some fans leave many in the audience talking amongst themselves and the overwhelming professionalism of the performance risks replacing the vitality found in less assured outfits. But that isn’t what Calexico are about – it might be overpriced cider in plastic cups rather than tequila, and Mexico might be a long way from Highgate Road, but for a couple of hours at least, winter isn’t around the corner, the set doesn’t have to end, and we’re all southern Californians.