Calexico / Richard Buckner – Cicero’s (St. Louis, MO)
Joey Burns crouches over his hollowbody Harmony at the corner of the stage, delay cranked to eerie; behind him, John Convertino stirs and dabs at his kit. Burns and Convertino’s resumes have circulated widely enough: Giant Sand, Friends Of Dean Martinez, Vic Chesnutt, Lisa Germano…they must wonder when Calexico will be taken seriously on its own terms. Spoke, their recent record, demands it; live, absent the album’s baroque wallpaper of sound, the two rely on their tunes’ secret hearts of melody. Song by song, they turn more improvisational. Their set is brief, minimal: They open with “Paper Route” and “Glimpse”, then move through songs with titles such as “Windjammer”, “Spokes”, “Wash”, “Drape” and “Cordova”, with the open, concentrated empathy of jazz.
“Thanks, even though we fucked up,” Burns says, as the crushing-glass noise of “Slag” sinks away. “Time for Richard Buckner to begin.” “No!” Buckner shouts from the back. After a moment, he walks up, and Max Johnston (onetime Wilcohort) tunes his fiddle. “Bonaparte’s Retreat” opens with melancholic reserve, a split-second abeyance before the tempo shifts up to the intrada chords of “A Goodbye Rye”.
Johnston switches to dobro, his licks starting off tentatively, then peering into dark corners, the band close enough for touching, Buckner’s voice dipping and hissing with menace, like a fate whispering into your ear, growing to a rumble of scatting poetry: “Sleep, shame, Reno’s low behind in flames, so, in your misty midst, on your lowland frame, won’t you sleep, shame?” Behind are Burns and Convertino, pushing and pushing a music made not in the raging self-reliance of Buckner’s work to date, but in the direction of some reckoning — sappy as it sounds — with the meaning of their lives.
From there, the set went like this: “Pull”, “Rainsquall”, “Figure”, “Roll”, “4 AM”, “Blue and Wonder”, “Ed’s Song”, “Polly Waltz”, “Home”, “Lil Wallet Picture”, “Surprise AZ”, “Six Years”, “Here”, and, as an encore, “Fater” — Buckner stepping away from the mike, singing a cappella till the chattering stopped, stilling time.
Fascinating, then, to witness Buckner, always the center of an elliptical, confessional art, always a radical self-fashioner, led by other musicians to greater interpretations and revisions. As powerful as I’ve found Buckner’s solo gigs, there’s no comparing them with this drama of dynamics — the way, during “Ed’s Song”, Burns bowed a deep, disconsolate howl from his acoustic bass, Johnston trilled over his mandolin, Convertino’s xylophone rang and faded like bells in the wind, and Buckner, driven by the interplay — something just shy of a country shadowed Astral Weeks or a less bawdy Rain Dogs — ventured phrasings and shot the words “vows abound in infidels” into space. During the last verse of “Surprise AZ”, guitar, banjo and drums ebbed to leave bass melodies and voice (hard to tell which led which), before all surged back toward the trio harmony of the chorus — the evening’s most memorable gift.
This show was the first of a two-week tour, begun after only four practices. The band had wanted to extend the tour, but, as Buckner explained after the show, MCA refused to offer adequate support. “We just said, fuck it, let’s do it.” A deliberate and fruitful anger bubbled beneath the set, from the poor take at the door — Sunday night in St. Louis — to the incessant audience static, and a blown Ampeg amp. When I asked Johnston to sign a poster, he looked at the billing — “Richard Buckner, featuring Max of Wilco,” said, “That’s bullshit,” took my pen, scribbled and scribbled over “of Wilco” and wrote, “of Richard Buckner.” For now, if not the unseeable future.