by Brad Roberts
photos by Amanda Glover
I got to spend two nights at the El Rey last week and they turned out to be two of the best concerts of the year...so far. Calexico played a make-up show on Wednesday, January 16, for the cancelled Fonda Theatre show last October when the great winds knocked out the power up on Hollywood Boulevard. Oddly enough they rescheduled for the night before I already had a ticket to see Pinback (Jan. 17) at the same venue.
Calexico is a band I came at kind of sideways during the first year of my return to concert-going. I liked the poster for a show they were playing at The Fonda so I got a ticket on a whim. They had already been around for years and had a strong following when I walked in that night of June 13, 2006 to a theatre was that was filled with a blue haze as opening band The Black Heart Procession weaved a hypnotic spell. Calexico performed next and played a set that insured I would never miss them again whenever they came to Los Angeles. I had a concert experience that night that was so powerful, both bands have been favorites of mine for years now.
I missed much of the opening set by tour-mates, Bahamas, but their set had the crowd shouting and yelling its approval. Our photographer, Amanda, got this shot of lead singer/guitarist, Afie Jurvanen (at right), and described them as "a soulful folk rock group from Canada". I would agree they were a good match for the headliners and Alfie has a surfeit of charm and charisma that easily won over the audience.
Having seen them a four times already, I knew I was going to hear one of the best voices in rock and roll when Joey Burns came to town. With the warm, honeyed tones of his voice, along with his back up singers, you can always count on Calexico to deliver the goods vocally with a precision that is both awe-inspiring yet completely unforced. And this set, on this night, lasted nearly two hours. Having between 7 or 8 multi-tasking musicians on stage at all times the band sometimes seems like a cross between a small orchestra and a marching band.
The expected emphasis was on the great new album, Algiers, but they still had plenty of time to delve deeply into their extensive catalog, which now spans 16 years for this Tucson-based band. The spirit of America's Southwest permeates the music with deliberate mariachi punctuations that places Calexico as a stylistic bridge between the folk/Americana of Iron and Wine (who they've recorded with) and the brassiness of DeVotchKa. As a genre some have called "desert noir", the evocation of a dry, dusty, wide-open terrain is very powerful. The audience still seems to be warming to the latest songs as the older ones elicited the strongest reactions, though I was there to hear the new.
Part of the fun of this band is watching the musicians rotate and take on different rolls, either playing trumpets, accordion (Martin Wenk, above), slide guitar and moving the music into strict genre territory. "Epic", "Splitter" and the title tune were among the highlights and showed off the rock and roll chops of the band. But "Minas de Cobre" and "No Te Vayas" moved into the Tejano genre. Their concerts always feel like a journey to me. And the band was in such high spirits the mood at this show was infectious.
Near the end of the night, the familiar strains of the song "All Systems Red" began and I was beside myself. This is perhaps their most moving song and one of my very favorites and I had never heard Calexico perform it in concert before. It begins as a dreamy, trance-like reverie with Joey's amazingly expressive vocal, then moves into the anthemic before descending into a noisy, beautiful cacophonous clash of crashing instruments. They performed it to perfection and I felt completely satisfied. And the show wasn't even over yet. They gave Los Angeles their all and showed off an obvious love for this city and its fans.