Calexico has long been one of my favorite live bands. What’s not to like? There’s the easy chemistry born of a long relationship between the band’s co-founders Joey Burns and John Convertino, which is only enhanced by the multi-national, multi-instrumental musicians who round out the band. Then there’s all the friends they have in Chicago who guest-starred during the nearly two hour show, plus the thirteen dollar glasses of wine. OK so I guess there could be some argument with that last item, but I knew that the City Winery wasn’t going to be cheap. My cabernet/malbec blend was delicious enough that I would have had a second glass if our waiter had ever come back. No, it’s not my favorite place in Chicago to see a show, but it was something different from the usual rock club, and honestly I can’t wait to go back (though that’s because on my next visit I’ll be seeing Josh Rouse, whose new album I just can’t get enough of).
So back to the fact that Calexico is a great live band. The problem has always been that none of their CDs capture how great they are live. I’ve bought many over the years and have always been disappointed, until 2012’s Algiers which is their most accessible record yet. Named for the New Orleans studio where they recorded, the songs from that record were definite stand-outs tonight. Songs like “Epic” and “Splitter” were infectious and had me dancing in my chair (OK, admittedly that’s a little awkward and a disadvantage to the all-seated venue). Their Mexicali sound is made for hip-shaking and head-bobbing. Throughout the night Burns looked like he was having the time of his life, and the smile never left his face. He switched between a couple of acoustic guitars and his electric, which is one of my favorite guitars. The distinctive white Airline with its row of knobs is pretty much the coolest guitar I’ve seen. Meanwhile, the handsome Convertino makes drumming look effortless, his languid movements belie the difficulty of the rhythms he plays.
Much of the credit also goes to the band, especially handsome German trumpeter/vibraphonist/accordionist Martin Wenk and charismatic trumpeter/triangle player Jacob Valenzuela who gets his own turn on the mike on the dreamy “No Te Vayas.” The guitarist who had just flown in from Spain the day before seemed to have shaken off every ounce of jet lag, though maybe not all of it since we did find out he had bought a $300 pair of running shoes on a shopping trip earlier in the day with guest vocalist Janet Bean. The Freakwater/Eleventh Dream Day chanteuse showed up to do her best Emmy Lou Harris to Burns’ Gram Parsons on a couple songs. Also called on to lend their skills were Tortoise guitarist Doug McCombs and trumpeter Dave Max Crawford. The latter may seem redundant with two horn players already on stage, but let me assure you that the multi-instrumentalist, whom most know from Poi Dog Pondering but I know best from Chris Mills’ City That Works, most certainly was not.
Burns couldn’t stop talking about how much they love Chicago, and with the friends they have and the two sold out shows at the glitzy new venue (he said he spent all day pairing wines to each song), I can’t blame them, but I do wish Calexico would show Madison a little love one of these days. I don’t mind going to Chicago, but they haven’t played Madison in going on ten years, and that’s just too long.