On paper, Calexico are two men. On stage at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, they’re eight. That’s because singer-guitarist Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino don’t just need bass, keys, and extra guitars to beef up their sound.
They need trumpets, glockenspiel, pedal steel, and accordion to create what can only be described as music without borders. Named after a town between California and Mexico, they don’t just rely on indie-rock and mariachi vibes. Over a 20-year career they’ve come to embrace Americana, Latin, jazz, reggae, and even new wave with an enthusiasm to match David Byrne’s.
That adventurous spirit is all over the band’s eclectic new album The Thread That Keeps Us, which makes up much of tonight’s set. Opener Dead In The Water, big on aggressive punky guitar riffs, and, later, the driving Bridge To Nowhere exemplify the recent addition of a “little more chaos and noise in the mix”.
Propelled by guitarist Jairo Zavala’s fluid playing, End Of The World With You continues the rawer vibe, but remains the catchiest song about the apocalypse since R.E.M.’s It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine). In contrast, the desolate Voices In The Field (inspired by refugees and immigrants forced to flee their homes across the world) and sombre Thrown To The Wild (written in the aftermath of Brexit and Trump) emphasise Burns’ incisive lyrics.
Yet, for all its stark impact, the darkness doesn’t linger. Under The Wheels introduces vivid Caribbean-flavours through a combination of Zavala’s Peter Tosh guitar licks, bleeping synths by Camilo Lara of support act Mexican Institute of Sound, Sergio Mendoza’s lush keyboard orchestrations, and trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela’s brassy blasts.
The freewheeling Another Space is a joyous mash-up of Remain In Light-era Talking Heads and ‘70s Miles Davis funk, led by the horn section (also featuring multi-instrumentalist Martin Wenk) and Mendoza’s keys. And the exuberant Flores y Tamales, sung in Spanish by Zavala, is a fiesta that comes closest to their old stuff.
That back catalogue is well represented by hits as well as rarities like Edge Of The Sun bonus track Roscoe y Pancetta. The impossibly sunny instrumental, never played live before this tour, is all handclaps, trumpets, and flamenco guitars. So too is the spaghetti western soundtrack Minas de Cobre (For Better Metal) from their second album, The Black Light.
The biggest surprise tonight, though, is the makeover of Slag. Originally released in 1996 when Beck was clearly an influence, the lo-fi hip-hop folk song’s been reimagined as a Texas boogie complete with a feisty Lara rap, searing Zavala solo, and a brief moment in the spotlight for Convertino, a drummer from the Charlie Watts school of understatement.
But understated is something this Calexico show is not. It’s a festival celebrating the music and people of the world.
Review of Calexico @ Shepherd’s Bush Empire on 29th March 2018 by Nils van der Linden. Photos by Paul Lyme.