Calexico at the Ritz, Manchester, UK – 16th February 2013

Posted by Bianca on Saturday Feb 16, 2013 Under Americana, Indie, Rock

Photographs and Review by John Bentley

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Calexico have been around for around sixteen years and have an international following for their special brand of indie-Americana music. They’ve clocked-up nine studio albums and a number of live tour albums, some of which are on sale at the merchandise desk tonight. Indeed, while their studio material is excellent, they excel as a live band, where the beautiful textures of their songs, the range of their material and their musicianship really comes over.

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The band’s name comes from the small USA-Mexico border town of Calexico and much of their music is a soundtrack to this frontier area. It has been described as ‘desert noir’, which is very apt. Their songs can invoke mental pictures of ramshackle wood-built shanty towns, with saloon doors creaking in the wind, tumbleweed blowing down the street and the sound of a locomotive’s hooter as it draws a long line of rattling freight wagons out across the desert landscape. They reflect a wide mix of styles and influences, most obviously the Latin sounds of mariachi and Cuba and US alt-country music. Guitarist Joey Burns has listed other influences as “Portugese fado, 50’s jazz, gypsy or romani music and its offshoots, 60’s surf and twang from Link Wray to country’s Duane Eddy, the spaghetti western epics of Ennio Morricone and dark indie rock singer songwriters.”

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Tonight in Manchester, Calexico are a seven-piece band, with core members Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino augmented by five talented multi-instrumentalist musicians. Even so, the band comes over as quite a democratic organisation, with individual members given the opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities. The current tour is promoting their new (2012) album ‘Algiers’ (named after a neighbourhood of New Orleans) and six tracks from it are played, the show kicking-off with ‘Epic’, the album’s opening track. This track, and the album as a whole, are a return to the classic Calexico style of the key albums ‘Hot Rail’ and ‘Feast of Wire’. In fact seven of the songs played tonight come from ‘Feast of Wire’, an acknowledgement of the popularity of that album.

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Highlights from the new album include the exquisitely played ‘Dead Moon’ (which strangely only appears on the special expanded edition of the disc – there’s marketing for you!), the catchy upbeat tune ‘Splitter’ and the lovely melody of ‘Para’, complete with splendid accordion. It would have been good to hear more from early albums ‘The Black Light’ and ‘Hot Rail’ (and especially more of their twangy guitar), but we do at least get ‘Minas de Cobre’, a wonderfully evocative atmospheric instrumental, with Spanish guitars and mariachi trumpets, reminiscent of spaghetti western soundtracks. In contrast we then have ‘Inspiracion’, one of their most Cuban-style pieces, with fabulous trumpet and Latin vocal by Jacob Valenzuela. Calexico are such a versatile band and there’s something for everybody.

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Then, again in contrast and always good to hear, is the guitar epic ‘Man Made Lake’. Next a bit of humour. A heckler yells out “more guitars”. This sets Joey Burns off on an improvised minor key ballad detailing the guitars that Calexico have with them, introducing them by name (eg. Spanish guitar ‘Willy’) and where they come from (Nashville, Tennessee, etc). There is general banter and amusement among the band and the audience, after which Burns declares ‘enough guitars’.

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Calexico tend to play their songs fairly straight, but interestingly tacked onto the end of ‘Not Even Stevie Nicks’, we get a bit of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, a gesture towards the musical heritage of tonight’s host city, Manchester. We then get the laid-back instrumental ‘Dub Latino’, where all the musicians get to do their bit (guitar, vibes, accordion, etc), before they launch into the upbeat ‘hit’ ‘Crystal Frontier’. Most of Calexico’s songs are originals, but a staple cover for the band is ‘Alone Again Or’ (the opening track from Love’s classic LP ‘Forever Changes’). Love’s original recording featured trumpets and was tailor-made for Calexico to cover and tonight we get a rather good and more ‘rocked-up’ version than I’ve heard Calexico play before.

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The full-house makes a tumultuous noise to demonstrate an encore is required. Calexico return for a four song encore, starting with the wonderful ‘Sunken Waltz’, again from ‘Feast of Wire’. In performance, they do roll out some obscurities and next we get an album bonus track, ‘Corona’. This Minutemen cover has rousing mariachi trumpets and great pedal steel guitar from Paul Niehaus. The penultimate number, ‘Guero Canelo’, has a really swinging Latin rhythm and allows all the musicians to show what they can do and also to have a bit of fun. During Paul Niehaus’s guitar solo, Burns comes over and peers intensely at what he is doing, as if trying to work out how to play the piece. Always a highlight for me is the drumming of John Convertino. It is so far from conventional rock drumming and is more jazz-oriented, especially in his frequent use of brushes rather than sticks. His drumming has such a light touch, but it is absolutely essential to Calexico’s sound.

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The band finally leave the stage, with Burn’s shouting “An amazing night, thank you Manchester”. And so it was. Perhaps the only disappointment for me was that they didn’t play ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’, my favourite Calexico song. However, they need a female vocalist to perform this duet and this wasn’t possible tonight.

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Setlist: Epic; Across the Wire; Splitter; Roka; Dead Moon; Para; Minas de Cobra; Inspiracion; Man Made Lake; Fortune Teller; Not Even Stevie Nicks; Quattro; Two Silver Trees; Dub Latina; Crystal Frontier; Alone Again Or; Puerto; Encore: Sunken Waltz; Coruna; Guero Canelo; The Vanishing Mind.

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One Response to “Calexico at the Ritz, Manchester, UK – 16th February 2013”

  1. JanieB Says:

    Spot on review! It’s hard to describe Calexico to people who haven’t heard them, and this does the job. I adore Calexico and have done since hearing Mark Radcliff play the Ballad of Cable Hogue on his R1 show many years ago. I would also have liked to hear Cruel from Garden Ruin but was ecstatic with what we did get. Still buzzing!

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