Calexico's wind-swept desert epics combined with Iron and Wine's soft southern lilt in an evening that saw cowboy poetry, blues murder ballads, and folk laments fleshed out by stirring twang.
Calexico + Iron and WineCity: Chicago
Venue: Congress Theater
Anyone who has been to my cramped apartment -- which is lined with shelves of books, records, and compact discs -- knows that I tend to fret unduly over alphabetization and categorization. For years I have been stymied by tough calls like where to put Howlin' Wolf ("H" for Howlin', "W" for Wolf comma Howlin', or "B" for Chester Burnett, his birth name?). Calexico and Iron and Wine's new collaborative release In the Reins has me vexed, not over questions of the alphabet. Rather, I'm debating genre issues. Is it a Calexico record with Sam Beam as guest vocalist? Would it better be described as Iron and Wine with Calexico as a backing band? After giving the disc many listens, the answer seems to be squarely in the middle. The record is a true collaboration, marrying Calexico's wind-swept desert epics with Iron and Wine's soft southern lilt. Beam's pen crafts cowboy poetry, blues murder ballads, and folk laments are fleshed out by the stirring twang and sienna-stained country rock of the Calexicans. The two groups saddled their steeds and rode their "In the Reins" tour into Chicago's Congress Theater, putting on an extravaganza akin to The Last Waltz, but without the air of finality. I had never been to the Congress, a giant old-fashioned theater that in its heyday must've been a grand palace. When I got there it seemed cold and foreboding. Its red velvet seats were tattered, its elaborate dome crumbling, and its fancy friezes and facades peeling. Perched high in the upper balcony, I settled in as Calexico opened the night with a new song. The tune stepped above the expected Morricone orchestrations, desert rumble, and mariachi fanfare, turning in a more '70s California country-rock direction, one that borrowed from bands like the Burrito Brothers and the Byrds. Staying with the sounds of '70s sunset rock, Joey Burns led the boys through "Not Even Stevie Nicks�". I'm not sure if it was the Congress' cavernous size, but these first two numbers saw Calexico sounding a bit hollow, a tad small. "Sonic Wind" was quick to come, however, and saw Burns's picaro guitar picking, Paul Niehaus's spooky pedal steel, and John Convertino's thunderstorm drumming. Finally the band cast a full-on wall of sound. In counterpoint to the roar were Jacob Valenzuela's muffled and muted trumpet solo, a lonesome call answered by Martin Wenk's ghostly vibraphone, and Convertino's sandpapering and scratching of the beat with a soft drum brush. Over their scant 45 minutes, Calexico was in peak form, bathing both new ("It's Too Late"), and old ("Alone Again Or") in their sonic shimmer, mixing trumpet blasts, artillery drums, gunslinger guitar, and swirling psychedelic sounds. Their musical mélange reached its denouement during their final tune, "Guero Canelo", where Calexico was joined by the Iron and Wine rhythm and percussion section, Mexican flamenco guitarist, dancer and singer Salvador Duran, and Chicago's Doug McCombs of Eleventh Dream Day and Tortoise. Here was a taste of the grand experiment to come. Ten players gathered to create a tsunami of sound with swirling, dancing acoustic guitar, slinky sultry bongos, congas, maracas and timbales, funky fuzzbox electric guitars, and a swagger of bass and drum. Calexico had stirred the crowd to a fever pitch and we were ready for the greater heights to come. After an unexpected and uneven -- nay, forgettable -- set by Red Red Meat, Iron and Wine took the stage. As with the last time I saw them, the first few songs were duets between singer/songwriter Sam Beam and his sister Sarah. Their soft, lithe vocal harmonies fell like the dying embers of "cinder and smoke." Beam plucked and strummed his guitar sharing cascading, eddying riffs while he and Sarah's cooed ooh-aahs and ai-yi-yis blanketed the music with a warm wispy spirit. By the time Beam proceeded to "Jezebel" he had his full band onstage, with Patrick McKinney supplying electric guitar and piano, and E.J. Holowicki providing brushed drums and echoing tom-tom beats. With a host of musicians at his disposal, Beam gladly invited Burns, Convertino, Paul Niehaus and even Red Red Meat guitarist Tim Rutili on stage for "On Your Wings" from Our Endless Numbered Days. Beam's Southern gothic imagist song became even more spooky and eerie as Rutili wailed a bluesy guitar moan, and Burns and McKinney traded screeching guitar licks that were answered by Niehaus's murderous pedal-steel twang. Beam would return to his sparse and stripped line-up for "Sodom, South Georgia" and "My Lady's House," awash in the ache and echo of pattering footfalls, rumbling percussion and waltzing violin. For "Woman King", much of Calexico and Iron and Wine came back on stage. Starting slowly with the ambient breathy vibraphone work of Martin Wenk and Niehaus's sweet crying steel, the song then picked up its stomping beat peppered with Beam's acoustic guitar and Sarah Beam's graceful violin. Each musician pushed the others to broaden and expand the big, boss beat. And now, the crowd was ready, for the bands to truly combine. They erupted into a roar as the two groups launched into the title track of their combined record, with its loping, galloping rhythms and rollicking guitars. Guest Salvador Duran drew the loudest roar as he tapped and danced a Flamenco beat on the hardwood floor, and then delivered his grand stentorian tenor for his verse of the song. If it wasn't clear earlier in the night, the meshing of the bands was a rich blend of the dust-covered western sparkle and shine with lazy laconic kudzu folk poetry. The "Calexiwine" orchestra turned the Congress into a backwoods Mississippi juke joint on "Red Dust", with midnight moaning harmonica, rolling and tumbling church organ, and a mean and nasty blues guitar. Stretching above the recorded version, the band kept it rocking with a sexy swagger, kicking heavy on the downbeat, screeching guitars in search of the Devil at the crossroads. With but a mere seven songs on "In the Reins", I imagined that the grand group jam would be short and sweet. Beam and Burns delighted, however, with a surprising cover of the Velvet Underground's "All Tomorrow's Parties". No longer a New York hipster rocker, the song dwelled in the playful plink and fervent honky-tonk hustle of country and blues. Squealing bottleneck guitar augmented a heavy driving backbeat while Jacob Valenzuela interlaced a funerary coda on trumpet. As predicted, the night ended far too quickly. The crowd was left howling and happy, wishing and wanting more of this tasty tessellation of Southern folkloric storytelling and desert ghost town cinematic sounds. This night of musical collaboration, far from a last waltz, seems but the first tentative dance steps of a moony-eyed couple drunk on the shimmer of the crepuscule.