Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. It’s a phrase that could have been invented for Calexico. Over the years we’ve come to know what to expect from them; there may be little in the way of surprises these days but that hasn’t resulted in their music being any less satisfying or enjoyable. The Thread That Keeps Us, released earlier this year, is their ninth studio album. It’s an eminently listenable, high quality offering even if it does to a degree follow the template laid down in their last few releases.
Tracks from the album dominate tonight’s set. Dead In The Water is one of the darker songs and it opens the show, sounding taut and wired. Voices In the Field is more open and features some overt guitar soloing. Under The Wheels meanwhile can be filed under ‘classic Calexico’, driven and impassioned with some nice brass accents.
Frontman Joey Burns is as engaging as ever throughout and explains how End Of The World With You was inspired by a family trip to Yellowstone national park. It shows how they have edged closer to a classic rock sound in recent years, sharing characteristics with Baba O’ Reilly by The Who in particular. Each new Calexico album features at least one strongly Latin-flavoured track and on this occasion it’s the bounding Flores Y Tamales, which sees Burns leave vocals to Jairo Zavala. The Town And Miss Lorraine proceeds at a gentler, more courteous pace, blown along by a country breeze.
They also dip into their back catalogue in the early stages. Across The Wire is further Latinised and space is also found for Sunken Waltz, another track from career-highlight Feast Of Wire. Ballad Of Cable Hogue reminds Burns of “the essential things in our musical vocabulary”, the trumpets making it sound especially luminous tonight. Camilo Lara from support act Mexican Institute Of Sound (and honorary Calexico member for this tour) raps over the top of Slag, helping it take on a certain unexpected swagger while the brass-powered Minas de Cobre is another track to come straight out of the dustbowl.
Switching back to new songs, Bridge To Nowhere tonight sounds incisive and gritty while Girl In The Forest is the closest they’ve come to their 2005 collaboration with Iron And Wine, described by Burns as “a happy song but one that’s crying on the inside”. Thrown To The Wild is explained to be a song about ‘downtown’ areas of cities across the world (“we’re all in the same mess”) and it’s suitably inward-looking and low key. Songs like these show how their music is still largely centred around stories about people and the lives they live. It’s social music on multiple levels.
Cumbia De Donde brings a welcome injection of energy and during Rosco Y Pancetta Burns gets the crowd to add “dog howls”, urging everyone to “feel it”. It’s a clear attempt to try to rouse the crowd. Tonight felt like another example of a London audience being in places quite slow to respond although when Crystal Frontier naturally closes the main set, as joyous and celebratory as ever, it lifts the atmosphere to a higher level.
In the encore Burns plays Fortune Teller alone on stage, a nice muted contrast to the full-blown nature of the rest of the show. Their cover of Es-Toy by Mexican Institute Of Sound drifts into Carlos Santana territory but, along with Another Space and Güero Canelo, sees movement and colour fill the venue. Moments like these show the fullness of Calexico’s music, still bursting with life and humanity after all these years. In the uncertain times, alongside their stability and industriousness, these are qualities to hold on to and savour.