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Some of the best films convey an unmistakable sense of place, giving a locale the weight of an actor, so that it becomes crucial to the plot and impossible to imagine the narrative playing out anywhere else. Music can be like that too. The Jam captured the sound of the angry young mod(ern) man in Britain under Thatcher’s government. The Velvet Underground perfectly suggested the urban grit of New York City (the Strokes wish they did.). Calexico are named after a small town in the California low desert near the Mexican border. It should come as no surprise then that their music is pregnant with the suggestion of mysterious, abandoned towns, scantly populated by drifters, loners and petty criminals. No band has written a finer soundtrack for a cowboy and western film noir. Indeed, their music is often referred to as cinematic and is frequently compared to that of the godfather of spaghetti western themes, Ennio Morricone.
Calexico’s music sounds like it could only be made by a unique blend of alt-country exiles, folky troubadours, mariachi bands and avant jazz musos. Formed around the nucleus of Giant Sand multi-instrumentalists Joey Burns and John Convertino, Calexico are more of a collective than a group, the band’s shifting sound subject to whichever musicians have drifted by that day’s recording studio or concert stage.
Tonight Calexico play with their regular touring partners, Paul Neihaus (pedal steel, acoustic), Jacob Valenzuela (trumpet, vibes), Martin Wenk (acoustic, trumpet, vibes) and Volker Zander (upright bass). But see Calexico in their native Tucson, Arizona, and the line-up could be totally different, featuring local musicians and friends, plus whomever’s passing through town that week. Not to mention mariachi Luz de Luna who sometimes comes out on tour, almost doubling the numbers. It is this variety that shows Calexico to be greater than the sum of its wildly varied parts, which includes country, jazz, flamenco, and traditional mariachis. Tonight they even add to the mix some gallic accordion and a moog.
Their set starts with the sweeping vistas of the jazz-tinged instrumental “Pepita”, segueing into the lively tequila sing-a-long “Across the Wire”. The band then traverse across all their styles and any cultural boundaries, switching effortlessly from the desert noir of songs like “The Ride Part II” to the casual jazzy vibe of “Woven Birds”.
By the time they play “Stray”, what is haunting on record feels like much more of a warning; “Watch where you stray my friends” becomes a lyric full of simmering threat. In this rendition, the horns become urgent, as the protagonist learns of the danger lurking in the next verse. If “Stray” and ‘The Black Light” were the warnings, “Black Heart” was the murderous event. This song builds and swirls into a maelstrom of fury. It starts quietly, a spoken word intro, with eerie pedal steel and tiny flourishes of guitar, like the angry voices of ghosts whispering from the grave. When the whole band kicks in, its like the summer downpour has begun. If July in the Arizona heat is unspeakably tense, August sees violent relief, the 120 degree temperatures replaced by spectacular thunderstorms. These dusted noir stylings perfectly capture the essence of the isolated desert towns Calexico and their characters call home. For all their influences, they’re a band that could only have formed at the nexus of such cultural borders, their personnel sucked in.
The biggest cheer of the night from a rather sedate crowd is for “Minas de Cobra”. This is the jewel in the Calexico canon, proving their instrumentals to be at least equal to the actual songs. Bold, brassy and upbeat, trumpets lead the tune in a six-minute TexMex spaghetti noir epic. Tonight, its flamenco stomp sounds slightly less celebratory, instead the vibes and pedal steel manage to convey a story widescreen in scope without resorting to lyrical color. The versatility of the musicians allows them to really push their songs to their limits, stretching them beyond their recorded versions and broadening their scope. Seeing the band live is like watching Technicolor for the first time.
For further eclecticism, the band shifts from dark storytelling to rowdy celebration, with a raucous slinging rendition of “Corona”. If one needs further evidence of these boys’ talents and ability to make something wholly their own, “Corona” is actually a cover of a tune by jazz punk pioneers the Minutemen given a cowboy western sheen and then used as the theme tune for Jackass! Then the encore sees another Minutemen cover, “Jesus and Tequila”, played by Burns and Convertino as a duo spliced with verses from Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”.
Calexico are never afraid to share the spotlight, so tonight when they invite support act Nicolai Dunger to perform a couple of his own songs, it seems the most natural thing in the world, and seamlessly fits with Calexico’s set. Sharing the stage allows for a spontaneity, a strength in musical collaboration and also makes each gig unique, elevating the band from merely playing another set on an endless tour and makes the night special, incorporating the local musical flavors.
The band is now clearly readying itself for the grand finale, and so begins “The Crystal Frontier”. Burns leads with his hushed whispered vocals, as the rest of the band colors the tune with some percussion and pedal steel in the background. They add some reverb, then a flourish of drums and some acoustic guitar. But just when the band is about to explode into its full sonic panorama, the song ends abruptly, instead taking the shape of an acoustic vignette. It remains unclear if the band are intentionally subverting expectations or if they’ve cut things short due to the generally unresponsive crowd. It highlights one of the problems with a festival like Noise Pop (San Francisco’s annual indie music festival now in its 11th year): it’s a great idea to give musicians a platform and to expose an audience to some new sounds, but the crowds one plays to will always be a mix of the curious and the devoted, never wholly one or the other. If any band this week willfully diverges from screeching guitar sounds or cutting edge electronica, setting it apart from any contemporaries, it’s Calexico.