As I drove into Manchester city centre, I encountered an unwelcome symbol of intolerance in the form of a poster van with a xenophobic anti immigration slogan, attempting to engender fear in advance of next week's UK general election. Calexico's song Bullets and Rocks exposes the folly of erecting borders, whilst the entire evening was testament to the cultural richness which flows when movement of people and exchange ideas takes place. Formed in 1996, and based in Tuscon Arizon, Calexico takes their name from the Californian gateway to Mexico in arid desert country. Last week, Laura Marling projected an image of Joshua Tree behind the stage at this venue, but Calexico's connection with the south west American desert landscape is more deeply rooted. The effect was cinematic: so evocative that it transported my mind to a utopian sunny, enlightened place, where barriers of all types have been cast aside.
The recently released Edge of the Sun has had a positive critical reception, though for me, the 2013 live album Spiritoso truly captures their energy. Yet, the new album has reached out to explore music beyond Latin America, as far afield as Greece, to wholly beneficial effect. Occasionally, on record, their Americana pop might verge on the polite, yet it's hard to imagine anyone who's encountered them on stage ever considering them bland. Seven musicians on stage visibly having fun, responding spontaneously to each other's playing are the antithesis of Public Service Broadcasting's pre-recorded show the previous night. The use of brass, with virtuoso mariachi trumpet playing brought a smile to my face, but the guitar work from Jairo Zavala was outstanding too. Accordion, vibraphone, and harmonica gave a rich palette to the sounds, and the influence of jazz brought New Orleans closer, though Spain and Portugal were rarely far away either. This was reinforced by the charisma of Jacob Valenzuela's Latino singing.
Judging by the response on Twitter, Calexico's cover of The Smiths' Bigmouth Strikes Again resonated particularly strongly with this audience. For me though, a stripped down rendition of Fortune Teller from Algiers was especially mesmerising. The resonant acoustic brought a mellifluous warmth to the acoustic instruments and to Joey Burn's vocals, who is a above all a storyteller. As if to maximise the number of songs in the two hour set, Joey spent little time talking, but his gratitude and love for the audience was evident. The closing track from Edge of the Sun, Follow The River, was so affecting, epitomising the sense of hope Calexico embodies: 'clouds will be breaking, soon you’ll escape them/Someday we’ll find our place in the sky'. Yet, the evening was not to close on a complacent note: instead there was an extraordinary cover of War Machine, a new song from Bill Fay, hymn like in its indictment of the violence of the industrial military complex.
The delivery of this sadly so relevant message was reinforced by Montreal's The Barr Brothers, who'd earlier delivered an outstanding, but all too short support set. Whereas I'd experienced Calexico on their last visit to Manchester in 2013, this was my first encounter with the rootsy Canadian quartet. Andrew and Brad Barr are joined by a keyboard player Andres Vial and harpist Sarah Page, who was invited to join the band after her playing was heard through the Barr's apartment wall. She's classically trained, but the bluesy intensity of the band live surprised me, and I loved the vocal harmonies and psychedelic leaning. Yet, the collaborative joy of Calexico's main set will remain in my mind for longest. I met a dedicated fan at the front of the queue who follows the band on tour as extensively as her job allows. In fact, Joey came to the rail before the show to consult her on the set list. I emerged into the night with a complete understanding of the desire to experience this soothing, uplifting, and inspiring act over and over again.
Falling From the Sky
Across the Wire
Cumbia de Donde
Two Silver Trees
Miles from the Sea
Maybe on Monday
Moon Never Rises (with The Barr Brothers)
Bullets & Rocks
Beneath the City of Dreams
Alone Again Or (Love cover)
The Black Light
Bigmouth Strikes Again (The Smiths cover)
Follow the River
War Machine (Bill Fay cover with The Barr Brothers)