Even before Calexico plays a note, the audience that awaits the seven-piece band based in Tucson, Ariz., has a keen sense of the show that lies ahead. Several minutes before the band’s Saturday nigh performance before a crowd of more than 700, a large menagerie of instruments filled the stage of the Granada theater in Lawrence: drums, keyboards, an array of guitars, including a pedal steel, an accordion, a vibraphone, standup and electric basses, maracas, trumpets. All would play vital parts in a two-hour concert that showcased the band’s signature sound, one drawn from the region and city on the California/Mexico border, from which the band gets its name. It's a mix of American folk and rock and traditional Mexican music.
The band is touring on “Algiers,” the album it released in 2012, part of which was recorded in the New Orleans neighborhood of the same name. The setlist this evening featured several songs from that album, starting with “Epic,” the show’s opener, a wistful folk tune that set the tone for an evening that would be more meditative than transcendent. They followed that with “Across the Wire,” a track from the album “Feast of Wire,” now 10 years old. That one opens with a fanfare of trumpets, some whines of pedal steel and filigrees of accordion, a sound that gives the band’s music one of its several nicknames: Mexi-Americana or indie-mariachi.
The sound can be rapturous, when all seven pieces are hitting on all cylinders, as they did on this song. The warm, honeyed voice of the boyish Burns only adds to the music’s lustrous appeal. He was enthusiastic all night, encouraging the crowd to clap along or cheer his colleagues’ stellar performances.
They would bounce from the music of “Algiers” and songs like the jaunty “Splitter” to tracks from the rest of the Calexico catalog, going back as far as “Stray,” a jazzy, horn-laden track from 1998’s “The Black Light,” one of its best albums. Fifteen years later, that song doesn’t sound fundamentally different from the band’s latest music. So older tracks like “Stray” and “Sonic Wind,” from “Hot Rail,” meshed seamlessly with songs from “Agliers,” like “Para,” a dark, glacial ballad drenched in acoustic guitar jangle, brushed drums and peals of pedal steel.
If there’s a weakness in Calexico’s music it’s the steady and inherent dark moods and predominance of midtempos, which can become hypnotic, if not narcotic, after a prolonged indulgence. Also, especially live, when the band is more free-wheeling, the music can distract attention from the lyrical themes, which address everything from love and relationships to social injustice and immigration.
A few instrumentals changed that mood. One of those was “Minas de Cobre,” which sounded drawn from an Ennio Morricone soundtrack. The all-Spanish “Inspiracion” cast a brighter spell, too, as Burns turned lead vocals over to trumpeter Valenzuela.
The song that drew the loudest reaction all night was the excellent cover of Love’s “Alone Again, Or,” which manages to honor the original while taking it into another dimension. As they did all night, the band performed it with conviction and flair, rendering a mosaic of sounds that compose its unique style.
|Timothy Finn, The Star