Bataclan theatre, Paris, October 29, 2006 (Published at Blogcritics magazine)
A concert is a multi-faceted affair that includes venue, audience, performance, even ticketing. On these levels there was much to celebrate and a bit to disdain at the Bataclan Sunday night.
First of all, the Bataclan is a decent venue—lots of space, 4euro half-pints (not a bargain, but it is worse in some places), and a big stage. I will pardon the significant number of annoying concert deadbeats who hung out at the bar and talked through even the most pianissimo parts of the set. I complained about that in Chicago, too. But another problem with Bataclan and thus this concert by association, is that for some reason Bataclan uses FNAC (the giant French audio-visual chain) to do their ticketing.
Like Ticketmaster in the U.S., these bigwigs corner markets on ticket distribution and jack up prices. They’re expensive, and they make you go to FNAC to pick up the tickets in person. The marketing assumption is no doubt that if you make people come to the store to pick up tickets, some of them are bound to spend money. This is an extra and unnecessary trip, and it produces a "middle-man" in the process which takes away earnings from the band in the end. My friends and I wondered what the band’s cut was at the end of the day. So the tickets were a bit steep at 25 euros. We further wondered how much of the tickets went to the elaborate cinematic backdrop to the stage, which consisted of a giant string-art screen on which Calexico's border images, the same kinds one finds on their cd art, were projected in between hallucinogenic fractals.
But it’s true that Calexico played their hearts out, especially just after announcing to rousing applause in the Encore, "They’ve given us 15 minutes, and we’ll play as much music as we can in that time." They held nothing back.
Calexico was the brainchild of the classically trained musician Joey Burns and John Convertino, who had met in 1990 in L.A. and then moved to Tucson, Arizona. Burns and Convertino had collaborated with Howe Gelb’s fascinating indie experiment Giant Sand, and then the Tucson lounge act Friends of Dean Martinez. Calexico broke into the indie American (then world) music scene in 1996 with their highly acclaimed Spoke (on Germany's Haus Musik Records). They experimented with indie twang, balkan folk, spaghetti Western, and surf on that first album. It was decidedly indie experimental, with hints of Tom Waits, the Go-Betweens, and soundtracks to Emir Kusturica films.
But it was on Black Light in 1998 (Quarterstick) that they really came into their signature sound, exemplified by songs like "Minas de Cobre." American country twang (mainly the steel guitar, vocal style, motifs, and time signatures) met mariachi in the indie gumbo they'd already been simmering. The result was a fresh sound that became as hot as the Tucson sun that incubated it.
Some critics did and still do miss the point, arguing that they’re just a cheap Anglo (they’re not all Anglo) mariachi imitation. But that’s never what they were trying to do, and a close attention to their musical hybridity (noted above and below) demonstrates their distinctive project.
I would say 75% of the songs they played at the Bataclan show were from the first four albums, and were heavily twang-mariachified. The trumpets, the percussion, the accordion, the pedal steel, and Burns’ distinctive vocals produced soundscapes evocative of tumbleweeds, hot, dry winds, desert loneliness, but also sombreros and splashing margaritas. They are poly-instrumentalists, professionals that awe the careful spectator by their ability to rotate from instrument to instrument, role to role, different compositional need matching personal talents. This should not be overlooked.
On the other hand, some people find them creatively stuck. They may be doomed to play the indie mariachified twang for the rest of their lives, just as David Duchovney will always be Mulder, no matter how he wants to branch out. It’s a trap, in that they excelled at something and a hardcore following will always love to hear it. Others find it stale and demand new, new, ever new products, including music.
Calexico has responded to the stale accusation by venturing into more straight-up indie rock (sounding like Franz Ferdinand meets Flaming Lips on a couple of songs) and toward a troubling (from my personal point of view) mix of southwestern music with jam band blues rock marathons. At least two songs were of that nature, and I haaaaaaaaated them.
But as I said, there are many levels on which you may, if you’re so inclined, appreciate Calexico today as much as a decade ago. Despite their arguable identity crisis, I doubt there’s much risk they will spiral into a jam band.