As a prelude to tonight’s particularly goosefleshy rendition of “Not Even Stevie Nicks…”, Calexico frontman Joey Burns gets to tell his Glen Campbell story. “Scottsdale, Arizona, is a very strange place,” he begins. “We have friends who’ve been to his house there. As you enter the driveway, electric bells start playing ‘Rhinestone Cowboy’, then barking dogs drown out the chorus.” Burns stops fingering the chords of the buckskin balladeer’s biggest hit and pauses, senses a certain bafflement in the audience. “They don’t care about the West over here,” he says then, to no one in particular. “All they care about is Posh’n’Becks.”
Tucson?that specific cultural vat of the US West that Calexico mainstays Burns and drummer/percussionist John Convertino inhabit?seems in a similar way equally at odds with the hedonistic hum of LA. New Mexico seems like another world?a land of myth and religion. Of tension and renewal. As a result, their music?a hybrid of mariachi, jazzy minimalism and scorched twang?seems more like imprints of places and emotional DNA than straightforward narrative.
For all their Hispanic border-straddling though, the key to their soul lies in their distinctly Californian choice of covers. An incredible mid-show blast through Love’s “Alone Again Or” captures the creeping dread inherent in Bryan MacLean’s sinister flipside of the great SoCal dream, while “Quattro” drifts in on Gene Clark’s noirish “Silver Raven”. A great walking guitar part ushers in the drunk blues of The Minutemen’s “Jesus And Tequila”. All three point to troubled shadows shifting beneath the sun. However paradisical the climate, Calexico?like their forebearers?belong at the dark end of the street. This is nocturnal music first and last, albeit lit with the midday glare of a desert sun.
With Burns and Convertino come sometime Lambchop pedal-steeler Paul Niehaus, Volker Zander on upright bass, Martin Wenk (trumpet/accordion/vibes) and Jacob Valenzuela (trumpet), sounding as fluidly rich as they are intricate. “Pepita” (from the Adidas ad) and “El Picador” are delicate and tightly woven, rippling with Hispanic flourish and counter-flourish. The irresistible “Black Heart” and “Not Even Stevie Nicks…”?the best things they’ve ever written-underscores the transition from moody soundtrackers of yore to robust songsmiths. At full tilt, they’re spectacular. Outsiders morphing frontier music into brave new drama. Tijuana brassnecks with balls to match.