Review and Photography by John Bentley

Calexico, Liverpool, 01-05-15

It’s always a pleasure to see Calexico perform. Their concerts are fun, they effortlessly mix musical genres and their live musicianship is stunning. The current European tour is promoting their new album ‘Edge of the Sun’.

The Barr Brothers, Liverpool, 01-05-15

Support band at Liverpool’s plush Philharmonic Hall is The Barr Brothers, who are based in Montreal, Canada. I’ve never come across them before, but what a treat they turn out to be. Enough to say that we end up buying their two albums from the merch table! Core of the band are brothers Andrew and Brad Barr. The five piece band perform melodic, sometimes quite experimental, indie folk rock, featuring many melancholic songs and often whispered vocals. But the repertoire is varied, with the quiet side balanced by some tough bluesy bottlebeck playing, interesting rhythm changes and nods to African music. They describe themselves as ‘sci-folk / mysterious roots’. There’s some really nice playing and the presence of Sarah Page’s full-size harp adds soft textures to the music. The set is delivered with conviction and has a real groove. Although they don’t much resemble those bands, it sounds like The Barr Brothers have been recording songs holed-up in a log cabin in the same snow-covered North American pine forest as Midlake and Fleet Foxes. The band have been touring with Calexico, but this is their last concert together.

Calexico, Liverpool, 01-05-15

If you have to give them a simple classification, Calexico are a ‘Tex-Mex Americana’ band. They come from Tucson, Arizona, in the US-Mexican border area and their music is a creative mega-mix of alt-country, indie rock and atmospheric soundscapes, served with a large helping of assorted Latin styles. Their often filmic music is very evocative of the wide desert landscapes of their homeland and at the same time they write some beautiful melodies, with interesting narratives. Their early albums were framed by the guitar and drums of the core members, Joey Burns and John Convertino and they sound relatively sparse in comparison with the current big band sound. Burns can play beautiful flamenco style acoustic or edgy twangy electric guitar and all sorts in between. Convertino is a brilliant drummer with a really laid back style, often more jazzy than rock, and he makes drumming look so elegant and deceptively easy. Over the years their sound has developed to bring in new influences and ideas and the line-up has expanded to the current accomplished seven-piece multi-instrumentalist band we see on stage tonight. The newer members of the band, like keyboard and trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela, have brought a lot to the band in terms of wider musical influences and instrumental skills.

Calexico, Liverpool, 01-05-15

The set balances highlights from their back catalogue with tracks from their new album.  Early album favourites ‘Frontera’ and ‘Trigger’ open the gig, followed by latest single ‘Falling from the Sky’. This must be one of their most commercial and accessible songs yet, but personally I prefer the edgier side of Calexico. The acoustics of The Philharmonic Hall are first rate and the sound is superb. However, while seated gigs like this may provide comfort for punters, seats can dampen the atmosphere, particularly when the house lights are left partly up, as is the case tonight. The lights make it too obvious that the audience is sitting quietly and passively, while the performers, in contrast, are letting rip. Joey Burns starts up a dialogue to get some audience interaction. He’s previously been to the city, but isn’t sure if the band have played Liverpool before. He’s assured by the audience that they have played here and the ice is broken.

The mix of new album and old songs played has plenty of musical diversity to hold the interest. From the new album ‘Cumbia de Donde’ is an early highlight and features some tasty brass and Cuban-style piano and demonstrates the musical breadth of the live band. ‘Coyoacan’ is a catchy instrumental featuring some of the aforementioned twangy electric guitar and some sort of miniature Spanish guitar.

The old favourite songs don’t disappoint either. An extended version of ‘Sonic Wind’ features great muted trumpet and Convertino’s seemingly effortless shuffling drum sound. There are some tasty electric guitar wig-outs, notably the three guitar duelling on ‘All Systems Red’, at which point the strobe lighting goes bonkers. And ‘The News About William’ seems a particularly lovely melody tonight.

Calexico, Liverpool, 01-05-15erpool

The main set finishes with some more Calexico old favourites, including an intense ‘Black Heart’ (with tasty steel guitar), ‘Alone Again Or’ and the ever-popular up-tempo foot-tapping ‘Crystal Frontier’. ‘Alone Again Or’ (written by Bryan MacLean) was originally recorded by Arthur Lee’s band Love, of course, but it seems to have become a Calexico concert standard. The Spanish guitar and mariachi trumpet playing that featured in the original Love recording fits Calexico’s style like a glove and the song really swings. So much so that most of the audience finally stand up out of their seats and clap in time and celebrate the (unspecified age, but big) birthday of multi-instrumentalist band member Martin Wenk.

Calexico are clearly confident about their new album as the encore features two more songs from it, plus a cover of cult singer-songwriter Bill Fay’s ‘War Machine’. A nice touch is that The Barr Brothers band members join Calexico for some songs. We finish with the infectiously dance-along Latin rhythms of ‘Guero Canelo’, with most audience members still standing and grooving. The Manchester gig encore the night before had apparently featured The Smiths’ ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ – I would definitely have liked to hear Calexico’s treatment of that song!

Calexico, Liverpool, 01-05-15

It has taken quite a while for things to really warm up tonight, although we finally get there. It’s not the band’s fault, but the fully seated venue is a little formal for people to let their hair down and embrace the joyous carnival finale of a Calexico concert. Looking on the bright side, I suppose at least the presence of seating has saved us from the sight of middle-aged white men dancing.

Calexico Setlist: Frontera / Trigger; Falling From the Sky; Quattro (World Drifts In); Cumbia de Donde; When The Angels Played; Sonic Wind; Miles from the Sea; Coyoacán; All Systems Red; The News About William; Tapping on the Line; World Undone; Esperanza; Fortune Teller; Black Heart; Alone Again Or; Crystal Frontier. Encore: Bullets & Rocks; Moon Never Rises; War Machine; Güero Canelo.

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