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Sun-baked sounds of southwestern summer
Calexico cooks
by Mark Anderson

Wake up one sunny morning way behind on yard work, pretty soon the phone rings. "You really oughta come to Calexico," conspires a reliable mate.

Turns out he means the band, not the southwestern town on the California border. So what that you've been living in a cave ... in these days of download, knowledge, in the form of a few MP3s, is a couple clicks away.

Aerocalexico is the new CD, but The Black Light, from 1998, drives fans and critics loco. Click to visit Calexico's Web site.

And Calexico is sounding good.

Next thing you know it's half past midnight. You're seated eight feet from the stage, a few beers under your belt -- and blissfully nodding off into the sultry, surreal dream-state of Calexico.

The project, brainchild of Joey Burns and John Convertino, a pair of multi-instrumentalists out of Tucson, Ariz., is clearly steeped in post-modern Mexican.

But touring as a sextet, the band recently returned from Europe and made a June 6 stop at Portland's Aladdin Theater with a sound that is all over the map.

Burns blazes trail with guitars: the nylon-stringed strums of acoustic balladeer offset the secret-agent-gone-south-of-the-border electric. His dulcet vocals lend grace to a third of the fare; his right hand never strays far from the whammy bar.

Convertino works the drum kit like a sensitive painter. Broad, muscular strokes impart thunder and lightning, quicksilver brushes make like driving rain.

Meanwhile, back at the Aladdin, the dream-state ensues. Open one eye -- right there between you and the stage, graceful señoritas incessantly swing and sway. Was that a meaningful look or an innocent smile?

Four sidemen, tastefully subtle to the end, add constant surprises as tempos run the gamut. Bowed stand-up bass calls forth high drama, minor chords supply tension, pedal-steel guitar provides a proper layer of twang. Trumpets slide from mariachi blare into muted Miles Davis. A French lyric sends listeners across a faraway sea. A fleck of well-placed marimba plops the proceedings back down at the Mexican border. Was that a bullet off a rock or the crack of a snare?

Calexico: Joey Burns cradles his whammy bar and strokes his unusual guitar, while John Convertino makes the drum kit sing.

The cumulative sound summons a cinematic scenario: The dust, the desolation. The crusty mustachioed men. Into town they ride, atop colorful blankets and clomping, underfed horses. Tumbleweed sidewalks render worldly-wise women waving mid-length skirts that stir the overheated air.

But at any given time, the sound is worlds away -- and the "border music" label bursts at the seams like a grimy, shrunken T-shirt.

"Music is just a reflection of all that is going on," Burns told Under the Surface magazine. "Ultimately it has to do with having your heart in the right place and allowing for musical subtleties, nuances and dynamics. Space is definitely the place, and we try to let the music breathe and capture the feeling in the room."

Still, somebody's gotta run the business end of all those instruments, and somebody's got to draw the map. Impressive as the live act is, the recorded product -- including six CDs in four years -- takes on an equally vivacious life.

At the Aladdin Theater, a pair of trumpets slid from mariachi blare to muted Miles Davis.

And the studio is where Burns and Convertino run the table. Convertino plays drums, vibraphone, marimba, percussion, accordion and organ; Burns takes credit for organ, cello, guitar, accordion, mandolin, voice and bass.

Aerocalexico, the 2001 recording available only from the band, lists Burns and Convertino playing all nine instruments. The Black Light, the 1998 CD widely regarded as Calexico's high-water mark, shows the duo handling 13 instruments plus production chores.

Recent recorded output represents well over 100 songs and doesn't include extensive and ongoing work with Neko Case, Lisa Germano and OP8, Howe Gelb and Giant Sand, The Friends of Dean Martinez and others, as they say, too numerous to mention. These are busy boys.

And there's still a long summer -- with plenty of yard work -- ahead. But the future is full of downloads, speakers can point out the window and frozen raspberry lemonade concentrate is somewhere south of 50 cents a can.

The back yard may still look a little shaggy, but it's sounding better than ever.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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