Calexico brings energy, intrigue to jumpin' crowd
Arizona-based band tells tales of beauty and danger in a musical montage
By Peter Gerstenzang
Special to MSN Music
NEW YORK – If grim, hard-boiled writer, Jim Thompson, had ever fronted a rockin’, Mariachi-soaked band, they’d sound just like Calexico. Whether the music is joyous, hard-driving, or delicate, everything this band does has a hint of Thompson’s violence and fondness for fatalism. Last Thursday night, the Arizona-based group turned the roomy Tarrytown Music Hall into a cantina where dancing or gunplay might break out at any minute. That is, when they weren’t transforming the place into a squalid little room where some sweaty grifter might hole up, wondering where to next take it on the lam. Literary allusions aside, this might very well be America’s finest band. And Thursday’s show, well-paced, thematically-cohesive, incredibly musical, was as thrilling and atmospheric as you were going to see all year.
Still, the audience, filled with lots of middle-aged dudes sporting white ponytails, were there to hear Joey Burns and his remarkable band who one minute surf-rocked the room like Dick Dale, then blasted the joint like The Tijuana Brass on mescaline. With solid, longtime drummer John Convertino, guitarist Paul Niehaus (who plays like a south-of-the-border Duane Eddy), plus Jacob Valenzuela and Martin Wenk on trumpets, Calexico was both virtuosic and as tight and powerful as a boxer’s fist.
The main songwriter, Burns, held it all together effortlessly. Whether clanging out power chords on his Danelectro or delicately finger-picking on acoustic, Burns, with his short hair, button-down shirt and black jeans (imagine a Western-style Christopher Guest), sang his superb songs about men in various poses of distress and either causing trouble, or running from it.
Despite its hushed, smoldering quality, Burns’s "Dead Moon" was one of the highlights of the evening. This spooky tune that “didn’t make the last album” ("Algiers"s), was as dark as a stretch of Arizona highway at 2 a.m. what with Burns crooning, “This coldness I know is not my own" suggesting, as he often does, that life’s most frightening circumstances are beyond our control, our lives are filled with a horror impossible to articulate and our fates have long-since been sealed. Put simply, Albert Camus would’ve loved these guys.
Luckily, the precision, excitement and beauty of Calexico’s music allows you to absorb such sentiments with only the occasional thought of running for the border, before they catch up with you. "No Te Vayas" was a particularly beautiful mid-tempo tune, sung in Spanish by the estimable Valenzuela. "Hit The Ground Running" too, was a standout although, here again, Burns’ simple, unaffected voice told of another troubled drifter trying his best to escape -- whether from this world or from the federales, it’s hard to tell.
As haunting and literate as Burns' songs are, what he and Calexico seem to really understand is groove. Virtually every song, no matter how slow the build or the burn, was built on the sort of tempo that had every gringo at The Music Hall hooting, hand clapping or yipping as if they were at a bullfight. Most of the night, the joint was jumpin’.
Finally, as an encore, the band played a quiet, haunting Mexican instrumental. Unsurprisingly, this lovely accordion-led piece, too, carried an undercurrent of dread. If you’ve seen the Howard Hawks film "Rio Bravo" it might’ve reminded you of the tune "El Deguello." Pretty as hell, until you’re reminded it’s what the Mexican army played during the siege at The Alamo. Well, we all know how that turned out. The best thing about seeing Calexico? You can hear such tunes and soak up their beauty and implicit danger but still go home at the end alive, well and with a great big smile on your face.
Photo: Robb D. Cohen/Retna Ltd.
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