By Dan Hartland
Calexico – The Forum, Kentish Town, 11 October 2008
The American novelist and editor Peter de Vries once complained wryly that, “What I hate about writing is the paperwork.” He was, I think, trying to get at the irritation felt by artists when they do for a living what it is they love. Creating anything, from a widget in a can to a work of sculpture, is a job – do it enough, and it takes on the characteristics of a chore. The hobbyist craves the recognition and financial freedom of the professional; the professional dreams wistfully of uncluttered passion.
The trick with almost any long-term undertaking is to keep it fresh (this also goes for refrigerated salad): what seems new and exciting will eventually become dull and workaday unless you’re careful. Most musicians I know have experienced this in their work – all in fact except the envied bedroom dabbler. Sometimes songwriting deliberately, or playing regular gigs, can feel like riding a treadmill without even the achievement of burning a few calories. This is why bands break up: they crack under the excruciating pressure of the everyday. Those that don’t by and large do so by becoming it.
Somewhere around the eighth bar of ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ on Saturday night, I realised that not only have Calexico somehow reinforced themselves against that pressure, but they were managing to reinforce me and everyone else in the room in the same way.
Calexico have always been a band who hate to stay still. Prior to taking the stage at London’s Forum this weekend, the projection screen played host to a long video taken from a car’s windscreen as the vehicle wound along endless roads, simply moving. If Calexico have always journeyed with fellow travellers, their destinations have always been different. This was most evident on their 2003 magpie’s nest of a record, Feast of Wire, but each LP has been different to the last and to the next. Some have not been to my personal taste – 2006’s Garden Ruin was a particular mid-tempo disappointment – but at least it can never be said that Calexico are a restful band. They are defiantly, brilliantly, restless.
This lust for invention was on display throughout their show. The band have perfected the art of at the very least appearing spontaneous. They are clearly supremely rehearsed, sharp in the best tradition of Mariachi, but in the finest musicians rehearsing eventually becomes something close to the psychic: Calexico don’t so much learn where to place a note as learn to know where to place a note. One of the night’s highlights, Black Heart, swirled and swelled with perfect abandon. The song felt as if it were about to explode and yet was perfectly controlled, almost cultivated. No less noticeably, and yet across a world of acoustic difference, Sunken Waltz, with its acerbic accordion and gentle pedal steel, felt a more bitter song than it does on record, catching a different emotion and channelling it down a familiar route, remaining perfectly judged.
The musicians clearly know they’re good. If pedal steel player Paul Niehaus is able to stop smiling, he didn’t display the ability on Saturday. And the band’s major domo Joey Burns commanded proceedings with total confidence, maintaining the restlessness proper to a sort of college rock protest singer without seeming bored, aloof of disdainful. (Bob Dylan, who was summoned in a brief blast of ‘Silvio’, should take note.) A special mention should be made – and so shall it always be – for John Convertino, who remains the beating heart of Calexico. As a loose-limbed drummer with machine-like precision, he represents the embodiment of the entire band. He was particularly stunning in ‘All Systems Red’ and ‘Red Blooms‘ (both of which threatened to doom the rest of the set to anti-climax), though his unfussy work was throughout most noticeable in its total lack of prominence.
Not all was perfect: ‘Two Silver Trees’, a song from this year’s Carried To Dust, did not seem to transfer well to the live setting. But ‘Inpsiracion’, ‘El Gatilo’, and ‘The News About William’, also from the new record, were all excellent, whilst ‘Fractured Air’ managed to do precisely what it says on its tin. Indeed, the band were at their best (if perhaps not their most crowd-pleasing) when making noise without the trumpets. Calexico have always fused Sonic Youth with Tejano, and in this attempt to weird up Americana have left most of their competitors spluttering in the sand they kick up. But last night I saw many in the audience simply close their eyes in order to best appreciate the soundwaves. It was a little beautiful.
The night closed on a no-holds-barred ‘Guero Canelo’, and the Forum danced. Two full hours before, they had connected immediately to the mention of London town in ‘Bisbee Blue’, and Burns & co. had not let them go. What they had taught them was, however much paperwork you have to do, you don’t necessarily have to lose sight of why you signed up in the first place.
And that, mis amigos, is what we call Inspiracion.
Bend to the Road
Ballad of Cable Hogue
Writer’s Minor Holiday
News About William
Man Made Lake
All Systems Red
Two Silver Trees
Alone Again Or
Victor Jara’s Hands
Dan Hartland has been a regular performer of raw, rootsy Americana at Colour events over the past two years. He resides in Birmingham and writes passionately at The Story and the Truth. His new EP, Walk the Floor is out now and available here and on iTunes.