It was a night of sublime “desert noir” for the fans of Calexico at Portland’s Aladdin Theater. The seven members of this road-tested Tucson, Arizona-based combo seemed relaxed but energized as they performed nearly 20 songs old and new in a one-hour and 45-minute show.
Calexico makes desert-tinged rock music with shades of mariachi, folk, country and Afro-Cuban jazz. It began in the mid-’90s as a duo of drummer John Convertino and guitarist-bassist-vocalist Joey Burns, with a cast of supporting musicians used for recording sessions. For the past couple of years, it has been touring and recording as a solid septet that by now shifts among instruments and between songs with well-practiced precision.
The Aladdin gig began with Burns and Convertino alone on the stage performing the instrumental “Paper Route,” with Burns on his trademark nylon-stringed acoustic guitar. They followed with a powerful take on “Convict Pool,” the title track of their current EP release, with Convertino’s strenuous mallet attack juxtaposed against Burns’ minimalist strumming and vocals that ranged from a laconic drawl to the soaring refrain of “Escape…convict pool!”
After that early catharsis, the rest of the band came onstage for a set that covered most or all of their albums but leaned most heavily on 2003’s Feast of Wire. The band’s two musical jacks-of-all-trades, Jacob Valenzuela and Martin Wenk, smoothly moved from trumpet to accordion to vibraphones to melodica to synth keyboards to various shaking and rattling percussion instruments. Paul Niehouse added to the atmosphere with pedal steel and electric guitar as double-bassist Volker Zander helped Convertino anchor the rhythm. The sound was clean and well-defined, through a combination of the Aladdin’s system and acoustics and soundman Jelle Kuyper’s setup.
From Feast of Wire came a tightly-wound version of “Quattro,” a soaring “Sunken Waltz,” a gritty acoustic “Dub Latina” and a workout on “Not Even Stevie Nicks,” that became a lengthy rocking jam built on the song’s refrain of “out of the blue.” Midway through the set, after a loose-limbed take on “Frontera/Trigger,” Burns and Convertino jammed on a long acoustic intro to what eventually broke into a full-band, wall-of-sound version of “Black Heart.”
The band stretched out several times on long, languid intros and outros, including an apparently improvised bit titled “Silver Raven” that led into “Quattro” and a rendition of “Sprawl” that eased into the number they recently recorded with the sassy Spanish band
They finished off with a dip into the back catalog, including the Southern-gothic ballad “Crooked Road and the Briar” and the band’s trademark single, “Crystal Frontier.” An extended version of the funky “Guero Canelo,” with Valenzuela inserting a verse of “Cuando Llegare” in the middle, served as the lone encore.
(Portland, Oregon, July 1, 2004)