Features | Concerts


By David Greenwald | 5 February 2006

For my first concert review since the epic Arthurfest, I return to the scene of the crime – the Barnsdall Gallery Theater in the picturesque Barnsdall Art Park overlooking Hollywood…

First impression: the Theater is tiny. There have to be less than 100 people in here, and already it appears two-thirds full with a substantial line outside. Much like the last time I was here, I feel unavoidably young – I’d hazard a guess that there are quite a few NPR listeners in the audience, although none of them are wearing their yellow American Apparel Iron and Wine tour tee shirts. Sitting on cushy chairs and drinking $4 glasses of wine in dinky plastic cups is no way to see a show, but there we were – me and a room full of Nic Harcourts.

While Calexico’s last full-length, the laudable Feast Of Wire, was released in 2003, the band has stayed busy, releasing the Convict Pool EP in 2004 and a tour-only album last year, and backing Iron and Wine last year on both his In the Reins EP and on tour. Wire wasn’t nearly as hard to swallow as the name implies, showing off the group's range with a series of songs ranging from mariachi waltzes to the stomping, Fleetwood Mac-inspired folk of “Not Even Stevie Nicks,” interspersed with instrumentals including a brief jazz session.

Their contributions to In The Reins were less diverse, the influences less pronounced in order to better serve Sam Beam’s stately folk. Still, the songs came to life in the live setting, and at a show last fall Calexico seemed to be thrilled to play Beam’s backing band. With an opportunity to step up to the mic themselves tonight for a small, devoted crowd, would they strike while the iron was hot and use the upcoming Garden Ruin LP to catapult themselves higher into the indie mainstream? Judging by the quality of many of the new songs, the answer seemed to be yes.

This performance was one of three showcases for the band’s fresh material, testing the songs out and trying to woo critics over (a large portion of the audience, myself included, was on the guest list) before the release of the studio versions. The pre-show music, fittingly, was Spanish and balladic – the very stylistic parameters Calexico seem poised to throw away as they aim for a more north-of-the-border sound.

The show began with a brief announcement from the PA system: “Your seats are not flotation devices,” it said, reminding the audience that there would be no eating or drinking within the concert hall. With audience members drinking either wine, coffee, or bottled water (have to stay hydrated in Los Angeles), hopefully that wasn’t Calexico’s idea of a joke. At any rate, the band certainly remembered to bring the songs. Over the course of the set and the four-song encore, the band played each of Garden Ruin’s 11 new tracks and few of its recent highlights.

The six-piece started things off with “Yours and Mine,” finding lead singer/guitarist Joey Burns strumming a steel string acoustic guitar. In the past, Burns has been inseparable from his classical nylon string, but on a few more traditional folk pieces tonight, Calexico sacrificed a little of its southwestern spice for a more palatable sound. “Bisbee Blue” was the best of the steel string songs, imbued with a nice Willie Nelson feel emphasized by a tasteful trumpet solo. “Cruel” revealed a little of Beam’s influence on the band, as Burns ended the song with a brief monosyllabic melody. By the third song the group seemed primed to return to their its strengths, though, and the nylon string guitar returned for an energetic performance of the familiar “Across The Wire.”

Burns made good use of the electric guitar as well, adding an earth-scorching solo to “Deep Down” as newly confident as his singing. “SMASH” (written in all caps on the setlist) was just another shot at straight folk until the Zeppelin-esque conclusion, and perhaps Calexico’s greatest song, “Not Even Stevie Nicks,” was made more anthemic than ever with a jammed-out, knob-twiddling finale. One of the group’s strongest assets is the remarkably expressive drumming of John Convertino, who gave the slow songs room to breath just as easily as he pounded away during the rockers.

Calexico’s impressive diversity remains an essential part of its music, and several of the performances showed special promise. “Nom de Plume” recalled the French pop of Serge Gainsbourg, and the jazz-infused “Lucky Dime” started with a fantastic falsetto harmony before settling into a New Orleans groove. The band began the encore with the instrumental “Dub Latina,” and it’s a wonder more musicians don’t embrace the expanded palette provided by mariachi rhythms and the occasional horn section; it’s not until you hear the polyrhythms and the sheer bravado accompanying them that you realize what you’ve been missing.

Tonight was a thrilling performance by a band at a crossroads: enough songwriting talent to make it as a folk group, but with influences far too expansive, and more importantly, too compelling, to restrict itself. With any luck, Garden Ruin will be a compromise that satisfies everyone, but for now, Calexico’s live show was an excellent appetizer.