The Tucson-based band, Calexico, plays a unique blend of Mexican, Southwestern country, jazz and indie rock styles. Almost like short stories, the band's lyrics feature fantastic imagery and tell interesting tales of characters south and north of the border. I caught the band's act on Sunday, June 2 at the City Winery, an intimate venue at Randolph and Racine in Chicago.
I go back with Calexico founders and songwriters Joey Burns and John Convertino — to when they were the rhythm section of Giant Sand. I bought Giant Sand's Center of the Universe in 1994 and have followed that band and its offshoots, Friends of Dean Martinez and Calexico, ever since. Calexico has now been around for 15 years.
The show opened with an impressive set by singer/songwriter Joe Pug, who played memorable modern folk songs. Pug was supported by an upright-bass player and an electric guitarist, and often closed out his songs with a harmonica riff. I liked Joe so much, I spent my last $10 on his debut EP, Nation of Heat, after the show.
When Calexico came out, the first thing I noticed was their unique set-up, with drummer Convertino at the front and side of the stage. Like the other Calexico members, Convertino is a multi-instrumentalist, but during shows he sticks to drums and percussion, showcasing his rare mix of jazz, country and Mexican techniques on a vintage Ludwig kit.
The other six members filled out the rest of the space, slightly challenged by the relatively small stage. There was a vast selection of instruments up there: classical guitar, electric guitars, electric bass, upright bass, pedal steel, accordion, trumpets, vibes, keyboards, more percussion, and something looking like a quarto or a bouzouki. Several members of the band are Latinos and it is obvious that the Anglos in the group have a deep love for Mexican music.
Calexico has a recent release out called Algiers, and they began the set with the CDs opener "Epic." Other Algiers tracks that were played included "Splitter," "Para," "Puerto," and "Maybe on Monday," all catchy songs characterized by a kind of haunting beauty. Calexico spaced the five or six Algiers songs throughout the set.
Mixed in with tunes featuring Burns' smooth and appealing voice were a couple of impressive instrumentals, most exhibiting that infectious Latin groove. (At the Winery, which serves great food, most folks are confined to a seat at a table, so all you can do is bounce and sway in your chair.) Instrumentals have been an important part of the band's repertoire over the years; one Calexico CD, Toolbox, is totally instrumental.
As if it were a jazz concert, Burns encouraged the crowd to acknowledge the great solos his band mates were playing, and the crowd complied. He also motioned for us to sing along at times, and I was more than happy to participate in that.
After spirited applause at the end of the set, the band came back for a mini-encore set that included old favorites, "Sunken Waltz" "and "Guero Canelo" (both from Feast of Wire) and a cover of "Is Anyone Going to San Antone?" which was a nice tip of the hat to the late Texas legend Doug Sahm, who similarly incorporated Mexican musical influences into his songs.