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Arts Festival Review: Calexico

Arts Festival Review: Calexico

Review by Tyler Hersey

Pacific Blue Festival Club
11 & 12 March

Making the best of the Festival Club's tricky combination of arena spaciousness and intimate theater-style seating, desert rock pioneers Calexico put on a superbly dynamic show for the first of two sold-out concerts, elevating from whisper quiet acoustic ballads to wall of sound psychedelic explorations in the space of their 90 minute set. The seven piece touring band enlarged the campfire laments of front man Joey Burns into pulsing blankets of guitar and vibraphone harmony, propelled by drummer John Covertino's relentlessly precise brush work on a minimalist kit.

Opening with the acoustic sunset lament “Bisbee Blue” from their 2006 long player Garden Ruin, Burns set a melancholy and introspective mood which permeated each song of the show, even through the rockier material. Pedal steel guitar player Paul Niehaus added plaintive, occasionally heartbreaking swells which lifted off the stage toward the high ceiling, his instrument effectively linking the simple acoustic foundation of each song with the electric reverb-drenched jams into which they often grew.

Joined by the rest of the players for a driving take on crowd favourite “Quattro (World Drifts In)” off 2003's Feast of Wire, the band settled into its trademark combination of cantering acoustic strums, mariachi trumpet stabs, keening single note guitar melodies, and Covertino's subtle virtuoso polyrhythms pulled from every face of his drums and cymbals. Joining the group for this tour are Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet and vocals, German bassist Volker Zander, guitarist Jairo Zavala, and multi-instrumentalist Martin Wenk, who concentrated on vibraphone but handled everything from vocal to keyboard duties with ease.

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Baring equal parts tenderness and grit, the band drew a whirlwind of dust and brittle sagebrush around their stage full of instruments, exploring the lives and landscapes of their namesake border town with songs like passing train cars which gathered speed as they rolled toward the horizon. Burns sang with enough power and clarity of tone to lend a human element to his existential lyrics, guiding the audience through worlds laced with shadow strangers and occasional religious symbolism.

The centerpieces of the set were back-to-back readings of “House of Valparaiso” and “Two Silver Trees” from 2008's Carried to Dust, and it is in these indie rock based arrangements that the eclecticism and instrumentation of the band truly flourished. Rather than leaning on their previous decade of tex-mex and alt-country influence, this most recent album displays genius in its effortlessly complex chord changes and wash of sound created by interlocking string and mallet instruments.

The seriousness of this new material was offset by a few light, spiraling mariachi tunes sprinkled throughout the set, the band easily slipping them on like old boots which have formed around their feet after years on the road. The audience appreciatively clapped along with these galloping Spanish rhythms, yet amusingly had trouble keeping up with songs containing three beat measures, as the Kiwi musical DNA is solidly based on the second and fourth beats of each bar. Audience participation was more successful on “Across the Wire”, with an upbeat vocal melody which would be at home in the canon of Willie Nelson.

Closing the show with a rousing four-song encore which included a solo turn by Zavala on a song by his band Depedro, Burns capped the night by calling for their concert staple cover of Love's 1967 hit “Alone Again Or” which ran from a flamenco guitar intro to mariachi trumpet licks performed by Valenzuela and Wenk with flawless intonation, igniting the crowd into a well deserved standing ovation before they filtered out into a rainy night, quenching the dry desert air created inside by one of the decade's most unique musical ensembles.


Calexico are also playing at WOMAD on Sunday.

Press releases: New NZIAF Nightclub on the Wellington Waterfront, Womad: Music And Performance From Around The Globe
Arts Festival website: Calexico
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2010

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