The Calexico live experience is puzzling, to say the least. Approximating the border town miscegenation of their moniker, this is a band known for frequently bouncing back and forth between road-weary westerns and semi-authentic mariachi music. Still, for better or worse, I can never quite figure out what it is I’m listening to. World indie? Desert pop? Does it matter? Not likely. More interestingly, though, having heard the band’s most recent effort, the elusive Carried to Dust, I was pleasantly caught off guard by the band’s incongruously bold musicianship at New York’s Webster Hall.
Up front you’ve got a bowling-shirted Joey Burns who, along with drummer John Convertino, formed the group’s original line-up. Notably, Burns’s voice is a much stronger presence in the overall mix than it is on the new record. A distinctly self-confident tone lends the material a certain professionalism that’s at first slightly disorienting, but ultimately pretty enjoyable. There is at least one problem, though. If you’ve got a strong voice people expect you to sing strong melodies, and Calexico’s melodies are never really that strong.
There are exceptions. “Writer’s Minor Holiday” is the main highlight of the set, with the appropriately titled ballad “Slowness” coming in a close second. The former almost sounds like a Wilco song from the Being There / Summerteeth years. While Burns is in high spirits throughout the night, he seems especially gleeful on this song, engaging the crowd in some generally unintelligible banter about writers in New York City—banter that may or may not include sarcasm. It’s hard to tell.
The single (because it has a video), “Two Silver Trees”, reiterates the whole “hey, that’s vaguely memorable!” motif, while “Inspiración” rather sorely misses its recorded counterpart’s female vocals. Otherwise, “Bend to the Road” is a cool update on Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing”—a near relation, in fact—though it is admittedly less adventuresome. Most of the time the band manages to glide by on the back of their battle-hardened chops, swirly electronic noodling, or the oddly funny way Burns moves to the mic to sing back-up vocals in Spanish on those pesky mariachi tunes. And yes, they are pesky. While I’m tempted to go off on some potentially ill-advised tangent about the effective gentrification of Mexican folk culture by an American indie band, I can’t really bring myself to pull the trigger on a band as visibly earnest as Calexico. Besides, even if I’m not fully persuaded, there is a reasonable case to be made for their brand of synthesis.
Overall, though, the band turns in a strong showing, apparently winning over the audience even if no one really knows how they’re doing it. Turns out that the calming effect isn’t unique to myself. The crowd consists mainly of people who look to be in their mid-thirties, probably about the band’s average age. Furthermore, everyone seems very polite and accommodating to his fellow show-goer. The audience is refreshingly clear of hecklers and/or unfortunate new age hippie-types.
Back on stage, the pedal steel gets much love throughout the set, a fact that leaves its operator, the staid Paul Niehaus (a Nashville native), constitutionally unfazed. Jacob Valenzuela, of Tucson, Arizona (like Burns and Convertino), sings on most of the mariachi songs and belts those mandatory trumpet parts. On occasion, Berliner Martin Wenk will join in with some equally mandatory brass harmony, his resemblance to Mark Wahlberg running notably deeper than shared initials.
By the end of the night we’ve heard a pretty good variety of material: Ghostly Mark Knopfler-esque shuffles, dubious salsa, and even the odd glacial noise-storm. People that seem to be long-time fans look well pleased and the rest of us wear expressions genuinely benign. Suddenly the band breaks into Love’s unimpeachable mariachi-psych anthem, “Alone Again Or”, and for once the whole crowd is singing. They play a few more songs with palpable gusto as we all ride the high. We come down. Calexico disappears into the wings and the audience (very politely) disperses, carried to dust.