[2 February 2009]
As strange as it sounds, a good way to experience Calexico live—at least for a few minutes, anyway—might be with your eyes closed. When the band kicks into full-gear and those horns full of mariachi flourishes and adventure blast forth, it can make you imagine whole vistas unfolding in front of you.
Once guitarist/vocalist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino met in 1990, they slowly worked their way towards the Calexico sound. At the time, Convertino was playing in Howe Gelb’s sandswept, free-flowing Giant Sand. Burns and Convertino then spent some time in Friends of Dean Martinez before moving on to session work for artists like Richard Buckner, Barbara Manning, and Vic Chesnutt. Their first release as Calexico, a lo-fi affair, was long on experimentation, but showed flashes of the Southwestern influences (that would later reveal themselves to be a complex mixture of everything from jazz to classic rock to Portuguese fado) and cinematic scope that would later define the band.
The band matured with each release, discovering ways to mix a ramshackle, off-the-cuff feel with an increasing interest in traditional songwriting. That quest came to a head on 2006’s Garden Ruin, which found the band opting for more conventional songcraft than before. It worked for some listeners, but not for others. It’s safe to say, though, that many naysayers were pleasantly surprised by 2008’s Carried to Dust, which showed the band’s stylistic reevaluation bearing fruit. Calexico’s sound is arguably more inward now, but a new level of craft and restraint seems to have settled over their work without diminishing their strengths.
Their September 2006 performance captured on Live from Austin TX captures Calexico after the release of Garden Ruin, when time on the road had allowed them to fully integrate the best of the new material with their standards. Recorded for the long-running Austin City Limits television show, Calexico presented a show that simultaneously put the new material in the context of the old, and vice versa. This DVD release includes eight songs not included in the broadcast, so it definitely presents a more complete picture of where the band stood at the time. The Garden Ruin material fares well, blending in pretty well with Calexico classics. Subtle differences still exist, but they feel more minor than they did on disc, certainly benefiting from a live setting.
Not that you’d know the show was a prestigious Austin City Limits taping based on its unassuming start. Convertino and Burns saunter onstage and with a simple “Hello everybody. Thanks for coming” from Burns, and the duo launch into a stripped-down rendition of “Convict Pool”. The rest of the band comes on immediately after and for over an hour provide a solid overview of the band’s catalog, delivering the professional show that you expect from the band.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Austin City Limits without guests and covers, and it’s here where the performance finds a new level. Calexico tear through their tailor-made—and by now well-known—cover of Love’s “Alone Again, Or”, as well as a rendition of their own “Guero Canelo” with Salvador Duran. Duran possesses a massive, earthy voice, and was also a welcome presence on Calexico’s collaboration with Iron and Wine, “He Lays in the Reins”. That song is reprised here, aided by Sam and Sarah Beam, and places Duran’s voice front and center.
Through it all, Burns leads things in very relaxed fashion—talking to the crowd and coaxing more crowd response than this viewer’s witnessed in nearly a half-dozen Calexico shows he’s attended. It’s hard to say why. Maybe it’s a little bit of playing to the cameras. Maybe it’s contentment with the band turning a new corner. Whatever the case, he, Convertino, and the rest of the band give Austin a good show, one that shows the band working their way towards one of their best albums so far.