Gig Review: I Might Be Alone Again (In Thinking This), Or Calexico Is The Best Live Band You Can Still Regularly See
Gig Reviews…where did they go? Turns out they live here now. “Sounds Good!” on Substack. But you knew that already. Because you’re here already. Spread the word eh…Alright, Calexico…let’s go!
Opera House, Wellington
Friday, February 9
I have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen Calexico — a live band I will always check out, even if it’s been years since I’ve checked in with the albums. I’ve watched Calexico at Arts Festivals, and while away on holiday (and just catching up on the fluke of being in the same town as them). I’ve been there as commissioned reviewer, and I’ve been there as a fan. And I was only ever disappointed once (and that was probably on me, road-lag from reviewing about 20 shows in 15 nights, as I recall).
Anyway, the one thing I always regret, was not seeing the band when their breakthrough album, Feast of Wire, was released. I was already a fan (perks of being a record reviewer for a daily national newspaper way back in another life, when music mattered…and even the mainstream media thought as much). But the night they first came to town with a killer live show in tow, I was moving house. Exhausted, I flagged on the gig, and put up with everyone telling me how great they were for a long time after.
And that was my motivation to pretty much never miss a Calexico gig. So I certainly wasn’t going to pass up going to see the 20th Anniversary Feast of Wire tour. As Joey Burns said, a few songs into the set, “I was never into this whole play an album live thing — but that evidently has changed”.
So, it was Feast of Wire almost in its entirety. Which is just fine. Because, to me, Calexico isn’t ever really about individual songs, and almost always about vibe, and Feast of Wire might be the best example of where both combine in a sustained manner. So we get the easy-in of Sunken Waltz leading to the first mild fiesta of Quattro—World Drifts In, and then the darker, dramatic tones of Black Heart (which seems to take its cue, arrangement-wise, as much from an Isaac Hayes rendition of Walk On By as it does any of the usually overt Tex-Mex antecedents).
Burns is comfortable out front leading the way, his acoustic guitar is often the little-lead-jangle providing hooks (Pepita), but it’s cloaked in slide guitar and trumpet, accordions and vibraphone, several band members moving about to cover all these parts, and of course always the guiding light: The steady hand of of John Convertino behind the drums.
Convertino and Burns started Calexico some 30 years ago, both have outside songwriting, playing and production credits, and though a regular band bubbled up around them as Calexico, they are the creative duo behind the name, the vibe, and in the case of Convertino, especially, the overall feel of the band on record and stage.
Every time I’ve seen them I’ve been able to marvel at a single snare drum roll that Convertino does; at the way he plays brushes; at the minimalism of his kit and the maximum energy he delivers without ever coming close to over-playing (Close Behind).
Burns is charming tonight too, winning the audience over with mentions of the local record store clerk that helped him choose some Kiwi LPs to take home to his family, and dropping in that he cribbed a line from David Kilgour no less. (Actually, it might have been nicer for a few more cheers there, Kilgour is beyond special, we don’t know how lucky we are, etc).
The song in question (Not Even Stevie Nicks) was skilfully dragged down into a version of Joy Division’s perennial, Love Will Tear Us Apart. Post-punkers in the crowd rejoiced. But only ever in the dark, brooding way, of course!
I’ve always thought that Calexico knows its very best song is a cover. Their version of Love’s Alone Again Or is most often a rousing set-closer or encore-finale, but tonight it’s served up like a break between album-sides, and this is super-effective placement. It’s not that anything was lagging, but there are a few instrumentals across Feast of Wire, and, anyway, what the world needs now (and always) is Love. Right?
The jazzy wash of cymbals and the fresh horn blasts of Crumble showcased the brilliant dynamics of an already dizzyingly-great band display, and then any shades of what might have been called alt-country disappeared completely as the set turned almost towards the psychedelic (No Doze) and most certainly towards full cumbia-mode (Cumbia De Donde, Inspiracion). It was nice to hear some tracks from Carried To Dust and The Black Light after Feast’s finale, and a rousing Crystal Frontier (from the first Calexico release I ever heard, Even My Sure Things Fall Through) was the perfect way to close a jubilant set of consummate musicianship. It’s a wonderful world of music that Calexico has built, they’re like a Putumayo Los Lobos, and I mean that as only the greatest compliment by the way.
Speaking of greatest compliments, when Joey Burns was between-song chatting, he raved about how lucky they were to have Ebony Lamb as their support act for the tour. You can’t do better than that as an opening act, right? Have the main band rave about you, after you yourself have gushed about what an honour it is to even be there!
Ebony was in fine voice, playing songs from her debut solo album that was released last year. Her trio sounded magnificent, and she no doubt earned a lot of new fans as a result.