Frequent readers of this site may be aware of my affection for Tucson-based musical collective Calexico, one of most consistent bands working today and a group whose south-of-the-border approach to country rock has carved them out a unique niche within the music scene. Calexico’s sound, with its swinging rhythms and evocative stabs of trumpet and pedal steel, transcends all attempts to pigeonhole the band into specific genres, especially when experienced lived. A Calexico show is like a jam session with the best bar band in the world, a group of musicians whose enjoyment of the majestic sound they and their bandmates are making is palpable and infectious.
In contrast, the band who opened for Calexico at El Rey Theatre on January 16th, Bahamas, performed an understated set with main man Afie Jurvanen conjuring a mood armed only with a beat-up electric guitar and backed only by a drummer and a pair of back-up singers. Jurvanen dedicated “Lost in the Light” to a fan in the audience who had specifically requested it, remarking, “I didn’t have the heart to tell him we’ve never played a show and not played that song.” As the song ended, a voice from the audience announced, “Alfie, she said yes!” That fan is now engaged.
Calexico opened their set with the roiling “Epic,” which also opens last year’s excellent Algiers. Those who read my recent interview with frontman Joey Burns know that he’s a thoughtful, soft-spoken man in person, but at the head of Calexico, he becomes an impassioned performer, playing both nylon-stringed acoustic and electric guitars with aplomb and encouraging the crowd to accentuate the band’s tempo with their own clapping. Not that John Convertino — the second half of the founding duo that forms the core of Calexico — needs any assistance as he is in his element laying down loping rhythms on the right of the stage, deftly leading the band through “Across the Wire” to Algiers’ lead single, “Splitter.”
The band intersperses tracks from Algiers with classic numbers such as “Two Silver Trees” and “Crystal Frontier” throughout their set, with multi-instrumentalists Paul Niehaus, Sergio Mendoza, Jacob Valenzuela, and Martin Wenk switching roles all the while. Niehaus’ pedal steel and the trumpet harmonies of Valenzuela and Wenk are particular highlights. Jacob Valenzuela is one of the most infectiously jubilant performers I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, particularly on rousing numbers like the cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or” that closes Calexico’s main set. Naturally the band returns for a four-song encore that includes another cover — Minutemen’s “Corona,” otherwise known as “The Jackass Song” — and concludes with a beautiful rendition of “The Vanishing Mind.” Then, with a final bow, Calexico is gone, heading on down that dusty desert road out of town.
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