Calexico – at the top of their game
Calexico, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House, Sunday, 22 September 2013
It was the most fun you could have sitting down.
And sitting we were, to the apparent chagrin of Joey Burns, the charismatic and otherwise affable lead singer/co-founder of Calexico. At one stage Burns offered that the band would make the show “as cinematic as possible”, because “that’s why you’re here”. Only later did I realize he was having a gentle dig at his audience.
Indeed, if I could pick a fault, it was one had to stifle the urge to stand, if not dance. The formal confines of the Concert Hall – and the conventions of Australian audience behaviour – simply didn’t allow it.
Apart from some minor sound issues, this was the only blemish on a truly memorable night of music. It was a minor compromise.
This show was another feather in the cap of Ben Marshall, who runs the Opera House contemporary music program and has previously brought Fleet Foxes, Beirut and Wilco to the iconic venue.
Calexico, Arizona’s genre-hopping purveyors of Tex-Mex, ‘desert noir’ and Americana were even better live than I imagined. On stage, the lonesome spaces in some of their music give over to a more urgent sound. Burns’ singing, it seemed to me, was more forward, more passionate than the sometimes breathy stage whisper of the studio.
On paper, Calexico may seem esoteric or experimental. In the flesh, they are immediately accessible. Surprisingly, a friend and I both name-checked Neil Finn/Crowded House in our post show analysis, and that goes some way to explaining their appeal. Along with the Mexican folk excursions and genre motifs – mariachi horns, spaghetti western keys and twang guitar – there is much solid, melodic pop.
Burns and co-founder John Convertino, the band’s drummer, have assembled a seasoned group of like-minded multi-instrumentalists who add depth and texture to the early Calexico songs. (Compare the original versions of ‘Frontera/Trigger’ and ‘Minas de Cobre’ with those from the recently released live set Spiritoso.)
It’s more than 20 years since Burns and Convertino played together in Giant Sand, and 18 years since the first incarnation of Calexico recorded, but they just keep getting better. Half of the night’s music was drawn from their most recent studio albums, the excellent Carried to Dust (2008) and the brilliant Algiers (2012).
The two covers they played were pearlers – a decidedly different but effective take on Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, and a faithful reading of Love’s ‘Alone Again Or’. Arthur Lee would have been chuffed.
The support act, New Zealand’s Tiny Ruins, was a revelation. A project of singer-songwriter, Hollie Fulbrook, this understated trio sounded perfect in the Concert Hall. Fulbrook, whose vocal style leans to traditional English folk – not unlike Kate Rusby – is a significant talent. Little wonder that Fulbrook joined Burns to sing Pieta Brown’s part on ‘Slowness’, to the delight of a packed audience.