Live Music Reviews

Calexico @ Royal Festival Hall, London

17 April 2004

One thing that is undeniable about Tex-Mex-ers Calexico, and that is, they mean well. And there’s more than a smattering of very concerned Guardian-istas (copyright Richard Littlejohn) in the Hall this evening to match them in concentrated earnestness. The North London contingent (which of course includes me) inhabit the front stalls and indulge themselves in a variant of applauding that can best be summed up as polite.

However, for those further back, and for the people up top making all the noise, Calexico successfully mix global-consciousness with the snappy timing of a well-drilled dance band with Latino flair. While the response from the front row remains mannerly, those in the cheap seats supply the clamour, and dare to shake their US-lexical fanny.

Calexico originators Joey Burns (vocals and guitar) and John Convertino (drums) lead the multinational Calexico. Burns himself holds the polyglot constituency of the band as symbolic of the band’s cross-border sensibilities, comfortably accommodating internationalist politics. There’s a clear agenda at work with Calexico, perhaps one that wears its heart a little more solemnly than The Flaming Lips, but one more conciliatory than say, a Steve Walsh. Many of the songs serve as impassioned, allegorical tales of love as sedition, the kindly sweep of metaphor eliding any thought that these may be Burns confessionals.

With a few nods to back catalogue favourites like Crystal Frontier, Calexico are here principally to give last year’s Feast Of Wire album a public airing. Burns introduces Sunken Waltz as “a song about the suburban sprawl”, and Quattro (World Drifts In) benefits from the addition of Josef Venezuela on trombone. Throughout, the extra players decorate the Calexico sound with discreet ornamentation, with the German XXXX’s steel guitar as “vocal” as Burns.

It’s no mean feat either. Though the band hang their alt-Latin colours to the mast, their repertoire is versatile enough that it demands adaptability. Calexico effortlessly switch from Tom Waits hinterland intimacy, to controlled Dick Dale / Link Wray gonzo abstraction, to a Michael Nyman-filtered reading of Ennio Morricone.

However, though Calexico’s particular musical stew may contain some exotic ingredients, it doesn’t always please the palette. What was once called good politics doesn’t necessarily create good music. For instance, it’s a matter of debate whether the direct polemics of Bob Dylan‘s Greenwich days such as Masters Of War, have the power of the elliptical spin of his later works. Similarly, the Calexico ladle can lay it on a bit thick, and the passion is strained by turns, a tendency accentuated live by Burns’ intense stage manner – Across The Wires is a particular victim of this burden.

It’s a possibility that the band are hampered somewhat by the venue’s venerative atmosphere, but it’s one that they bravely attempt to address, with a glove-fitting rendition of Love‘s Alone Again Or. By the time Calexico have invited support band Los Paranoias onto the stage, those parts of the audience resembling statues are forced to reconcile their ears with their feet and acknowledge that there just might be a party going on. Though there at least 20 people on stage with various duties, the carnival-like dnouement brings down the curtain with a smile. It’s not always important to be earnest.

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