Crystal Ballroom; Portland, OR

I had a decision to make. Either see My Morning Jacket, “the world’s greatest live band,” or saddle up and catch Calexico. It really is a quandary when two bands you like play on the same night, but I’d seen Jim James’ heroics this past summer at Bonnaroo while never catching a proper Calexico tour (I saw them tour with Iron and Wine). I decided that spending the evening with Joey Burns and John Convertino was the way to go. Upon arrival at the Crystal Ballroom, I realized that I probably wasn’t the only one who had to make that decision; the venue was woefully empty and I easily made my way up to the front. Though more people arrived as the evening wore on, there would be no heavy crush, no hot breathing down the back of my neck. Space is good; I can deal with space.

Burns and Convertino took the stage alone and Burns said, “You guys look beautiful! Must be all that sunshine you got today.” The duo then launched into the instrumental “Scout” from the band’s debut Spoke, which bolsters their famous Southwestern sound -- like Duane Eddy meets Vicente Fernandez. The five other members of the band then took the stage to play “Roka” from Garden Ruin. It's only human to make comparisons, and something in the back of my mind made me wonder if I had made the correct choice passing on My Morning Jacket. Sure, Calexico’s songs are good, but Burns doesn't have the equal stage presence of James. Besides, whoever did the sound check mixed Volker Zander’s upright bass so high that it drowned out the rest of the band.

Calexico is on tour in support of their newest album, the solid Carried to Dust. While the 22 song set mixed music from all periods, the band was here to show off its newest material. They first played “Bend To the Road,” an understated tune featuring Burns' whispered vocals that sounded devoid of intricacies thanks to the poor bass mix. Luckily, levels can be changed; soon enough the bass had been fixed and I was able to enjoy the concert.

Calexico live and Calexico recorded are two different animals. The group can almost be compared to a jazz band, containing one of the tightest rhythm sections in indie rock. Though sometimes the particulars can be separated better on tape, one can really appreciate all that goes into a Calexico tune while seeing them live. This tautness couldn't have been displayed better than on “El Gatillo,” an instrumental that sounds right from a Sergio Leone movie. According to Burns, this was the first time the track had been performed live and multi-instrumentalist Martin Wenk carried its melody with a haunting whistle. In fact, Wenk went further, showing off his accordion skills with a pair of Feast of Wire tracks: “Black Heart” and “Sunken Waltz.” So appreciative was the audience of Wenk’s performance on “Heart” that Burns said the band would “venture off the setlist” to accommodate another accordion song. Wenk wasn’t the only stand-out musician in the group. Jacob Valenzuela’s trumpet helped define that signature Calexico sound and he even did lead vocals on “Inspiracion.”

Despite music that comes from the American Southwest and Mexico traditions, it's surprising just how international the members of Calexico are. Besides Burns, Convetino, and Valenzuela (all Tucson natives), there are two Germans and a Spaniard in the band. Even though Calexico's music is geographically fixed, influences of fado, jazz, and heavy rock sneak in. One of the most popular tunes of the evening was the cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or,” a gem of sunny 1960s California rock.

But Calexico saved its most cinematic music for the end. They finished the first set with “Crystal Frontier” and returned with “Minas de Cobre,” both great workouts for the Mariachi horns and chugging rhythm section. When they finished the first encore with “Guero Canelo,” inserting lyrics from Manu Chao’s “Desaparecido,” I felt satisfied with my decision to go to the Crystal Ballroom. The band returned once more to play the icy “Red Blooms,” and as the chilly soundscapes drifted over the nearly empty room, something magical occurred. The few who stayed witnessed a band that cared nothing for on-stage theatrics and let the music speak for itself. Sometimes that is all one needs.
01. Scout
02. Roka
03. Bend To The Road
04. Across The Wire
05. Jesus & Tequila
06. The News About William
07. Writer’s Minor Holiday
08. Dub Latina
09. Two Silver Trees
10. El Gatillo
11. Inspiracion
12. Black Heart
13. Slowness
14. House Of Valparaiso
15. Man Made Lake
16. Alone Again Or
17. Fractured Air
18. Crystal Frontier
19. Minas de Cobre
20. Victor Jara’s Hands
21. Guero Canelo
22. Red Blooms

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