The best bands are the ones that can surprise you over and over again.
Calexico may sound like the upstart bastard brood of Ennio Morricone – all tumble weeds and Mexican stand-offs – but there’s a spontaneity to their live shows that seems directly at odds with the jaw-dropping orchestrations, effortless multi-instrumentalism and slick production values. I certainly wasn’t expecting them to segue from Feast Of Wire‘s “Not Even Steve Nicks…” into a pedal steel driven rendition of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” – but tonight that’s exactly what they did. It’s this kind of playfulness (with an attention to the legacies of an audience’s own cultural context) that demonstrates Calexico possess a brilliance that shows no sign of dimming.
And they certainly have a way with crowds. It’s obvious they’ve dealt with many different kinds over the years. I’ve seen so many American acts try to charm a Manchester audience and fail miserably; there is a strange and provocative sense of entitlement we seem to exude en masse at such events. But frontman Joey Burns understands the humour and he can definitely give as good as he gets. There were a handful of mouthy drunks dotted about the auditorium (of the “random word heckle” variety) that he dispatched in a myriad of entertaining ways. My favourite was addressed to the guy who kept shouting “more guitar!” (presumably a suggestion to the sound engineer – although the levels sounded fine from where I was standing): Burns began improvising a song in which he named and described every single guitar they would be using throughout the set, ending with the line “do you still want more guitars?”
Old live favourites “Ballad Of Cable Hogue” and “Corona” brought a glimmer of Tucson sunshine to this bitter Manchester February, but the particular highlights for me were “Crystal Frontier” and “Para”, two numbers that rely on an ebb and flow many bands might shrink from when confronted with a Saturday night party crowd. The songs alone were never the stars though, but rather the entire musical journey, guiding us from crescendo to crescendo, a great sweeping sonic narrative blowing over the audience like the Oklahoma dust bowl, pricking at our imaginations like so many cactus needles.
I’ve been to a lot of Calexico gigs over the years – on both sides of the Atlantic – with all manner of variations in personnel. In my teens they were viewed as a trivial offshoot of Giant Sand, in my twenties they were best known for their collaborations with Sam Beam and now in my thirties they can pack out places like The Ritz. Unlike so many artists one follows over a number of years, Calexico holds an enjoyment periodically renewed and refreshed rather than one merely remembered.
And yes, they’ve always sounded like a spaghetti western soundtrack, the tunes conjuring up vast grit-scoured vistas of sun-baked rock and red earth, peppered with narratives straight from the fevered imaginings of a dehydrated desert stumbler. But go see them live – theirs is a sound that can quench any musical thirst.