When I reach the Albert Hall, the Barr Brothers, who are supporting Calexico tonight, have just ended their set. The venue is not full yet, and the atmosphere is quite relaxed. No VIP areas and a mature crowd that slowly spreads around the beautiful balconies of the former chapel. The band gets on stage at around 9pm, welcomed by a warm applause and with the Edge of the Sun cover decorating the background.

Calexico are Joey Burns (vocals, guitars) and John Convertino (drums), and they are regularly joined, in studio and on tour, by an international team: Martin Wenk (trumpet, accordion, vibraphone, guitars); Jacob Valenzuela (trumpet, accordion, vibraphone, percussions); Sergio Mendoza (keyboards, percussions); the strongly sideburned Jairo Zavala – aka Depedro – (electric and lap steel guitars) and Ryan Alfred (upright and electric bass).

Apart from a few silver threads in their always perfectly styled hair, time seems to never pass for Joey Burns and John Convertino. They have been delighting our ears for almost twenty years as Calexico and, before that, as Giant Sand and OP8 with Howe Gelb and Lisa Germano. Although the band was originally formed in Los Angeles, Calexico have long been based in Tucson, Arizona, and their sound and lyrics have been deeply influenced by the landscape of the nearby Sonora desert and the issues of migration, exploitation and violence linked with being close to the troubled Mexican border. However, the labels of ‘alt-country’, ‘Americana’, ‘desert rock’ and ‘Tex-Mex’ that have long been attached to them are inadequate when it comes to describe the eclecticism of the copious Calexico production. If it is true that, from Garden Ruin onwards, there has been a rock turn in sound and performance, that their atmospheres are deeply evocative of Western films and Ennio Morricone’s instrumentals and that Calexico have absorbed the mariachi sound and made it their own, there is more to Calexico than that. Their sources of inspiration include Joy Division, the Smiths, Nick Drake, Amalia Rodrigues, David Byrne, R.E.M., Victor Jara (to name just a few) and they enjoy collaborating with musicians from radically different backgrounds. The influence of classic jazz is also quite strong, particularly in Valenzuela’s and Wenk’s sensual trumpets and in Convertino’s refined drumming. The relatively recent acquisition of Depedro, with his Hendrixian guitars, has significantly contributed to the band’s pop-rock shift.



Tonight Calexico are presenting their latest release, Edge of the Sun (Anti/City Slang) and it is with itsopening track, ‘Falling From The Sky’, that they start the show. ‘How are you doing, Manchester?’ Joey Burns asks. It takes the mariachi trumpets of ‘Across the Wire’, followed by ‘Cumbia de Donde’, to melt the composed audience. Originally sung by Amparo Sánchez (of Amparanoia) in Edge of the Sun, tonight it is Depedro’s task to sing the lyrics in Spanish. At this stage, the Hall is already infected by the Calexico virus, which makes everyone dance. The setlist unfolds with ‘Splitter’ and the seductive ‘Two Silver Trees’, which echoes Patti Smith’s ‘Dancing Barefoot’. Burns jokes on the fact that today the weather is unusually nice in Manchester, and wonders whether someone has been altering the weather on purpose. On a dystopian note, he then imagines a future in which musicians have to go through security checks and remove their shoes before going on stage.

The show continues with the beautifully melancholic ‘Miles from The Sea’, which sees Wenk at trumpets and accordion (decorated with tiny lights), followed by a typical Calexican instrumental, ‘Coyoacán’, featuring Mendoza at what looks like a vihuela and Valenzuela at trumpet and shakers. The next song, ‘Maybe on Monday’, involves a lot of guitars, with Burns switching to his amplified classical, Wenk to an archtop and Depedro painting everything electric. The Barr Brothers return on stage for the irresistible ska rhythm of ‘Moon Never Rises’, enriching it with a banjo and a güiro. Burns explains that today it is Martin Wenk’s birthday and asks if we have any special birthday songs in Manchester. Unfortunately, we don’t, so we just sing him the traditional one and we are given, in return, the Calexico classic ‘Sunken Waltz’.

Burns then introduces an intense version of ‘World Undone’ with his guitar, and is later joined by the rest of the band. Jairo Zavala, again, deserves a special mention here, as his electric guitar, despite being a bit too prominent, truly enhances this already fantastic song with its lysergic riffs. Burns explains that he has family here and that it’s nice to be back. Next up is the haunting hymn to hope ‘Esperanza’, sung in Spanish by Jacob Valenzuela, followed by ‘Fortune Teller’, arpeggiated by Burns and performed with Convertino, Ryan Alfred (who is playing his double bass with an arch now), and Jairo Zavala on lap steel. The audience bursts into a loud applause and the full band comes back for an impressive version of ‘Bullets and Rocks’, with Burns back to his electric, Mendoza at floor tom and mallets and Andrew Barr at some sort of castañuelas. This song, in particular, emphasises Burns’ always alluring voice, and his guitar and Depedro’s perfectly intertwine for one of the finest items in Edge of the Sun. After the twangy guitars of ‘Beneath the City of Dreams’, Calexico conquers the venue with their faithful cover of Love’s 1967 masterpiece ‘Alone Again Or’, to which the entire Albert Hall claps perfectly at the right tempo. The last song before the encore is the lively ‘Puerto’, partly sung in Spanish by Depedro, in which Convertino shows off his drumming mastery. It’s almost 10.30pm and the Hall is galvanised, thanks also to the creative work of the light technicians.

Calexico come back after a few minutes with one of their best songs ever, the mesmerising ‘The Black Light’, performed only by Burns, Convertino and Alfred on double bass. The next is ‘Roll Tango’, a TomWaitsian/Middle Eastern bonus track only available in the deluxe version of Edge of The Sun, to which Zavala improvises a few salsa steps while playing guitar. Joey Burns, now wearing glasses, asks us: ‘Is  everybody  ok?’ and then dedicates ‘Bigmouth Strikes Again’ to his Mancunian family. Of course we are ok, Joey, especially after this. What follows is an interesting version of ‘Guero Canelo’ mixed with Manu Chao’s ‘Desaparecido’ and ‘Fuego, Fuego’: now it’s Valenzuela to dance salsa, along with everyone else in the venue. Depedro improvises a karaoke playing notes on his guitar and asking the audience to sing back, revealing the fact that Calexico fans can sing perfectly in tune and, also, that the Albert Hall really shines among the venues in town for the impeccable quality of sound.

The band leaves again, but we know there’s going to be a second encore as the lights are still down. Calexico conclude this long set with ‘Follow The River’ and – with the full Barr Brothers line-up including Sarah Page on a portable harp – a cover of Bill Fay’s romantic ‘War Machine’. At almost 11pm Burns says goodbye: ‘We love you guys very much, you know that, don’t you?’. We love you too, Calexico. The satisfied crowd thanks with a big applause and leaves quietly.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Calexico live, but tonight has made me realise why Calexico are always worth watching live and still fill venues: they are simply an amazing live band and their shows are a party that people leave with a smile on their face. Even those songs from Edge of the Sun which had not impressed me for their originality, acquire a new polish live, while their classics and covers still gloriously resist the passing of time. Tonight’s playlist has mainly focused on the last two albums and many of those that I consider their best songs have been neglected, but it has been, as usual, a very enjoyable night.

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Francesca Nottola

I write, translate, edit texts and take pictures. I solve problems for pensioners and create problems to everyone else. Sometimes a history researcher and language tutor, I would happily live in a national archive or in the head of professional musicians. Unfortunately, I say what I think