Thursday, April 06, 2006

Calexico at the 100 Club

Joey Burns is telling a story. Nothing unusual in that - loads of bands that are given to a bit of in-between song banter do. However, the difference is that he's singing the story, backed by the rest of Calexico improvising impressively. He's already sung introductions to the band.

The story’s mainly about a Mexican collaborator of theirs, for whom they’re trying to sort out a visa, so he can tour with them, and it involves an incident where they’re stopped by a border guard. “What do you do” he asked. “We play music” they reply. The expected “What kind of music” question was never returned, Joey said.

But it got me thinking – what kind of music do Calexico play? Especially in the light of their new album Garden Ruin. Before now, I’d have said that essentially they have two types of song – one is a kind of rolling, dusty slightly country, slightly jazzy song, and the other is a straight up throw-your-sombreros-in-the-air mariachi number. Sometimes both songs appear together, like in the classic Stray off their debut album Black Light.

On Garden Ruin however, things are different. Neither type of song is prominent. Instead they’ve opted for a more straightforward alt-rock Americana template, an on occasions rocking out in an almost uncharacteristic way. Now this could be a bad thing, making them indistinguishable from so many other bands in a similar vein. But it’s not – it’s still Calexico. The melodies still soar. There’s still that glorious desert evocativeness, and the trumpets and jazzy drumming are always lurking round the corner.
Tonight the full canon is in evidence. The mariachi stompers in particular go down well with the crowd, in the increasingly sweaty 100 Club – it’s great to hear the likes of Minas de Cobre, El Picador and the aforementioned Stray.

But the new songs are pretty well-received too. Burns’ confession to being a ‘shoegazer’ earlier in the set seems like less of a joke when he and the band swathe a few songs in sheets of guitar noise. There’s even feedback, which I'm sure I’ve never heard at a Calexico gig before (though they’re such accomplished musicians, that you feel every drop of feedback is measured).

It’s a really special gig, and a great privilege to see Calexico in such a small venue – pretty rare in London. I’ve seen them a few times now, but never fully appreciated the brilliance of drums and percussion maestro John Convertino. Heck, they’re all amazing. A band to make sure you see sometime. Now I can’t wait to see them at Summer Sundae.

Download: Calexico - Panic Open String
Download: Calexico - Letter to Bowie Knife
Download: Calexico - Roka

Buy Garden Ruin.

As an odd footnote, they were meant to appear on John Kennedy's XFM show after the gig, but pulled out because Joey apparently lost his voice at the end of the gig. It didn't seem like that. Or is that why they didn't play Crystal Frontier?

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