Calexico are named after a town on the US-Mexico border, faced by a Mexican twin, Mexicali. The name, like the band’s music, is redolent of a vanished era of harmony. Since the first Calexico album appeared in 1996 the border has become an increasingly militarised zone of steel fences, sensors and armed guards. The towns of Calexico and Mexicali are nowadays separated by a wall. Meanwhile the band – a duo, Joey Burns and John Convertino, who are actually from Tucson, Arizona – imagine ways to get past that barrier.
They opened tonight’s show with “Epic”, from their new album Algiers. Burns played shivery guitar riffs and sang in a beseeching fashion; at his left Convertino kept impeccable time at the drum kit. They were joined by a bass player, a guitarist and two horn players. The song was about a person making a dangerous passage to a new life – a theme amplified by the next song “Across the Wire”, from 2003’s Feast of Wire, in which the horn players added a rollicking mariachi accompaniment to Burns and Convertino’s cowboy rock.
New track “Splitter” kept the tempo rolling with driving drums and chugging power chords, Burns singing about an exhausted but unbowed migrant labourer. Both music and underdog subject-matter followed Bruce Springsteen; but Burns shared none of Springsteen’s declamatory stagecraft. He and Convertino had a mild air about them, as though the stories their songs dramatised – maquiladora workers “sweating on the TV factory line”, Cuban-Americans stranded from their families by “a wall in the ocean between you and me” – were an imaginative act of sympathy rather than a matter of life-or-death engagement.
It wasn’t a show to grab you by the throat. The lighting was proficient; the musicians were anonymous in black shirts and blue jeans, apart from Burns who was daringly attired in a checked shirt and black jeans. Instead the rewards lay in the subtlety and richness of the music: for Algiers, recorded in New Orleans, is among their finest albums. Spiralling guitar and horns evoked an obsessive relationship in “Para”. Trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela led the way on the entrancing Latin jazz number “No Te Vayas” while “Sinner in the Sea” shimmied between rumba and rock. They delved into their back catalogue to end with “Crystal Frontier” – whiplash guitars and swirling Latin rhythms conveying both the lure and dangers of the borderland.