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Live Review: Calexico at Metro • Chicago

| October 9, 2022


Calexico (Photo by Holly Andres)




Chicago, IL

Friday, October 7, 2022

Reviewed by Jeff Elbel

On a fall night when Chicago temperatures plummeted into the thirties, Calexico brought a blast of arid desert sunshine to the Metro. The band from Tucson, Arizona, arrived with songs from its latest album El Mirador on ANTI-Records. “Chicago, Que Paso?” asked Joey Burns when beginning the title track, mixing English language verses with a Spanish language chorus and fusing multi-cultural sounds drawn from the border towns represented within the band. Martin Wenk and Jacob Valenzuela played mariachi trumpet harmonies, while John Convertino combined a deft jazz drummer’s touch with a Latin American beat.

The band’s style was a joyful blend of mariachi, cumbia, norteño, folk, jazz, and indie rock. Co-writer and Tucson mambo king Sergio Mendoza sang harmony and played keyboard while Valenzuela sang and played guiro during “Cumbia de Polvo.” Wenk took flight with a soaring trumpet solo.

Convertino played a driving rock beat while Burns strummed a nylon-stringed acoustic guitar for “Splitter” from 2012’s Algiers album. Lead guitarist Brian Lopez played a sparking electric guitar solo and featured throughout the evening with spirited playing and singing on other songs, including the wistful “Harness the Wind.”

The band has maintained a strong connection to Chicago, with a history on local labels Touch and Go and Quarterstick. Burns frequently called out old friends in the room, including “Max the bartender.” He asked to tag along with a couple in the crowd who were preparing to move to Portugal and then addressed the state of the union. “I love touring the US,” he said. “It’s so interesting to see what’s going on,” he added wryly. Burns encouraged peaceful protest in the face of contemporary societal ills and called for more diversity and women in public office.

Every member of the seven-piece band was highlighted throughout the show. Venezuela sang the lead vocal with a heartfelt ode to a departed friend in “Inspiración,” adding a lively trumpet solo atop Convertino’s brushed drum beat and Mendoza’s sparkling piano. Mendoza’s accordion intertwined with the trumpets during “Stray” from 1998’s The Black Light. Burns led the band to a whisper to make way for Scott Colberg’s acoustic bass solo.

Burns again acknowledged the links between Tucson and Chicago and made a special dedication. “Since so many of you here are from Tucson, I want to play you this song,” he said. The band then played the late Chris Gaffney’s gentle waltz “Frank’s Place.”

Next came the stirring instrumental “Minas de Cobre (For Better Metal),” opening with train sounds and unfolding like an evocative Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack. Lopez’s guitar traded spirited solos with Wenk and Valenzuela on trumpet. The simmering intensity and captivating melody of “Two Silver Trees” were reminiscent of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot.”

The band’s five singers joined voices in Spanish for a spirited version of Los Hijos Del Sol’s “Cariñito.” The set returned to El Mirador as Burns’ subdued by intense vocal-led “Caldera” against Convertino’s urgent drumbeat. Lopez took the lead vocal for 2018’s “Flores y Tamales.” The energy peaked as the main set concluded with “Crystal Frontier” from 2000’s Hot Rail. The floor at Metro remained in motion with dancing bodies until the final notes.

The band returned for an encore and answered a request for Feast of Wire’s “Sunken Waltz,” featuring a bleary-eyed but elated Wenk on accordion. The multi-instrumentalist was still shaking off the effects of his commute to join the tour from home in Germany. Burns asked him whether he was still jet-lagged. “Totally jet-lagged, but it’s like a nice buzz,” answered Wenk gamely. Burns mention that the 20th anniversary of Feast of Wire was approaching.

Burns thanked fans for the request, remarking that he didn’t necessarily receive the same enthusiastic accolades off the road. “I’m just trying to soak this up because when I go home, my kids are going to be like, ‘We don’t believe that you went on tour. You just went off to Mexico by yourself.’

The encore kept people moving with El Mirador’s lively character sketch “The El Burro Song” and concluded with showstopper “Cumbia de Donde” from Edge of the Sun. Burns professed his love for friends and fans in the room and promised the band would return soon.


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