ALBUQUERQUE—Drums crash, and two dueling trumpets blare to the left as Joey Burns persistently strums the same distorted chord over and over again. The band is loud and the sound is a little fuzzy—Burns vocals are disappointingly muffled in the lower register—at the Sunshine Theater, on Calexico’s last stop of their North American tour in support of Carried to Dust.
Burns’ appearance doesn’t quite seem to fit the Mariachi-influenced folk/rock image that listening to Calexico’s music would give you of him. He’s skinny and unassuming, often donning simple blue jeans and a pair of flannel shirts. Like Sam Beam, one could be suspicious of whether he’s the “real deal” (Beam’s speaking voice, colored by a thick Southern accent, helps him.) But that’s just appearances. How Spanish music, jazz, dub, and folk inspired and seeped into Joey Burn’s pathos would no doubt be a story of interest that lies far beyond the realms of most music magazines’ celebratory profiles.
Each member of Calexico has his own, wildly appealing persona. Paul Niehaus (on pedal steel and electric guitar) is solemn and serious until, halfway through the show and under the influence of singing background vocals and riffing with an electric guitar, he cracks a smile that remains for the rest of the show. John Convertino (drums), who wears lines on his face that speak of middle aged existence and (possibly) too much drinking, takes solace in his command of percussion.
Martin Wenk (trumpet, keyboard, accordion) is lanky and awkward, almost always sporting unkempt hair and an air of un-belonging. Jacob Valenzuela stands uprightly with a sense of pride while patiently waiting to play his trumpet parts, and sing in Spanish. German bassist Volker Zander is stern-faced and strictly European. Frontman Burns actually seems like the least interesting “presence” in the ensemble: he does his job simply, leaving room for the rest of the band to take what attention they will.
All of which, combined, make the band’s live performance a thing to not only be seen but experienced. Folk may generally be a solemn, stand-still experience, but Calexico’s music, with its jazz and Latin influences, is a different affair. Or should be, if Albuquerque’s middle-aged hipster population weren’t so, you know, stiff.
That’s also why the pre-encore set closer “Guero Canelo” was the easy highlight of the night, and more because of the crowd’s reaction than any action on Calexico’s part. A member of the crowd made his way over to my spot (my front and center, best-standing-room-in-the-house spot), dancing and clapping erratically but never losing his time. It’s impossible to describe what he did, or how he affected the crowd. But it took him temporarily usurping my place near the stage, and reaching out his clapping hands as close as he could get them to Joey Burn’s face, to make the night come alive. Because, and we all know this, white people (read: mostly me) need help dancing. When it came time for him to dance his way back to his spot in the crowd, I gave him a clap on the back.
That’s Calexico. They make me actually like mariachi and wish I could dance better. Or, for starters, actually dance.
Timothy Zila is a Patrol music critic.
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