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The Tuscon, Arizona band Calexico came to the WERS studio represented by lead singer-songwriter and guitarist Joey Burns and pianist Sergio Mendoza of Sergio Mendoza Y La Orkesta. With them they brought a host of new songs off their latest record Algiers, named after the New Orleans neighborhood in which it was recorded.
Geography and culture are some of the definitive influences on Calexico’s previous records, however, as Burns noted “geography is not always an absolute.” He said that the band went to New Orleans to “make a Calexico record, not a new Orleans record” (despite considering that endeavor to be a “good idea”). The result being a collection of solid, distinctly Calexico tracks, three of which they performed live with nothing more than a guitar, piano, and Burn’s voice.
Calexico started the set with “Splitter” and in an instant, the charismatic and strikingly humorous Burns transformed into an intense an emotional performer, immersing himself completely into the song. The intensity of the song manifested itself in his demeanor, and his constant rhythmic swaying made it seem as if he was playing the guitar not just with his hands, but with his whole body. Burns sang an accessible and engaging melody while simultaneously playing some intricate guitar phrases, while Mendoza punctuated the song’s emotions with his piano flourishes. Their collective performance was effortless, while certainly not careless.
While practicing their next song “Fortune Teller”, Burns directed Mendoza to “play less like a piano player and play more of the ambient stuff. Simple is good, get all Brian Eno on it.” Calexico’s fondness for ambiance is reflected in their post-rock influences, another layer to their already colorful array of genres, highlighting their musical diversity. One of Calexico’s more distinct influences is world music, which Burns expressed his love for with the lone sticker of Fado music legend Amália Rodriguez on his guitar. He called her his “patron saint of traveling on the road with music.”
The lyrics on “Fortune Teller” are written by Pieta Brown, and Calexico delivers them beautifully. Burns strummed away at his guitar and sang the distant and haunting vocal melody, while the piano provided ambiance and made for a tense, ghostly atmosphere.
Calexico closed the set with “Sinner in the Sea”, a rustic and narrative song inspired by Cuban history. Burns proved to be a great story teller, his performance was captivating and engaging, and it was impossible to not become as immersed in the song as he was. The music paralleled the intensity of the lyrics, with accented notes and instrumental flourishes that made the song cohesive and the experience interactive. The most interesting part was the brief, clearly Latin influenced musical interlude that the band intertwined into the song so effortlessly. It was a concise demonstration of how apt Calexico is at making their music, as simple as it may sometimes be, the manifestation of a myriad of cultures and ideas, while remaining totally accessible.
In the four year period between 2008’s Carried to Dust and Calexico’s newest record, Algiers, the band kept busy sound tracking the films Circo (2010) and The Guard (2011). Burns acknowledges that the processes of both are obviously quite different, and said “ when producing our albums, we’re left to ourselves, and at certain points, we need some help.” This help came in the form of Craig Schumacher, the bands co-producer. The idea of Calexico being a band rooted in collaboration was consistent with their performance and ability to play together so flawlessly. The collaboration of not only people, but cultures, places, and musical ideas, is what makes Calexico such a unique group.