sounds of southwestern summer
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.
is the new CD, but The Black Light, from 1998, drives
fans and critics loco. Click to visit Calexico's
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
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?
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.
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.