Live Review: Calexico, Jess Ribeiro

25 January 2019 | 10:13 am | Anthony Carew

"At times they have a Morricone-esque sense of grandeur, their dangling licks of slide guitar and brassy overtures evoking some Western idyll, verily galloping across the range."

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Calexico is the name of a band, but also the name of a place. It’s a city in the very Southwest of California, whose name - a portmanteau of California and Mexico - suggests the greater milieu, where culture bleeds either side of man-made borders. This is what the music of Calexico, the band, also suggests: the Arizona outfit marrying sunkissed rock’n’roll and alt-country with Tejano and mariachi, their songs vividly evocative of place. At times they have a Morricone-esque sense of grandeur, their dangling licks of slide guitar and brassy overtures evoking some Western idyll, verily galloping across the range. In their 2003 song Across The Wire - which they play, beautifully, at their Recital Centre show - frontman Joey Burns delivers a narrative evocative of this border culture in a different light: “Alberto y Hermano on the coyote’s trail,” he sings, “dodging the shadows of the border patrol/Out in the wastelands, wandering for days/The future looks bleak with no sign of change.”

Jess Ribeiro, the Melbourne-based songwriter who opened for Calexico across a run of local dates, also summons a sense of place. No one would dare think to call her music - which offsets a songwriter’s swagger with lyrical insecurity, feeling at once defiant and fragile - ‘Australiana’, but when she sings If You Were A Kelpie, with its evocations of country towns and Green Valley farms, the sense of the environment from which she came is just as tangible. Ribeiro returns to the stage when Calexico play, showered with admiration by the headliners, to duet with Burns on a sweet cover of Gillian Welch’s Look At Miss Ohio.

That moment comes deep into Calexico’s set, which heads out to two hours; when you’re 11 albums and 25 years in, you’ve got lots to draw on. There’s plenty to remember, and sometimes, evidently, too much: when Burns begins to play Thrown To The Wild, from their latest LP, 2018’s The Thread That Keeps Us, he forgets its opening line, soliciting both band and crowd-members to fill him in (it’s the crowd that does the job; “cold linoleum just seems to amplify” the answer). The setlist is thick with the new record, with Flores y Tamales receiving a warm response. It’s sung by lead guitarist Brian Lopez, one of the five multi-instrumentalists joining the band’s core of Burns and the loose-limbed, nimble-rhythmed John Convertino on drums. Vocals, especially on the Spanish-language songs, are passed around; Jacob Valenzuela and Raúl Marques also taking turns. That pair spend much of their time as the band’s brass section, and they deliver the show’s cutest moment: in the encore, they don’t return to the stage, but pop up in a balcony high above, “testing the acoustics of the place”, trumpets serenading from upon high. 

The encore is finally the moment where the largely-silver-haired crowd, given “permission” by Burns to do so, no longer fights off the urge to get up out of their seats and dance. With their cumbia rhythms, gurgling Farfisa, and boisterous brassiness, Calexico have sometimes seemed out-of-place at the Recital Centre. But the band never seemed confined by the space, given their music’s great power is its ability to summon environs in the minds of listeners. They do so with complexity: both playing up to the myth of the great West, and cutting against it with lyrical reality. When they play 2000’s Crystal Frontier, Burns introduces it with, essentially, a plea for humanity, empathy, and social change. Their music may evoke the border, but Calexico are about obliterating borders, in both word and deed.