Calexico scorches Pabst crowd, leaving ballads back home
If there is such a thing as power mariachi, or mariachi power pop, then Calexico must have invented it. Or at least they will make it accessible to the masses.
Calexico's performance Wednesday night at The Pabst Theater showed just how stunning its southwestern arrangements, its sound and its energy could be, even it doesn't always sound like traditional rock and roll.
Making its Milwaukee debut at The Pabst (and out-drawing every other venue it had pulled on this tour), Calexico ripped through a 90-minute set that left its audience exhausted, if not somewhat surprised by the lack of sandy balladry. Kudos to The Pabst management for having the good sense to bring a band like Calexico here, but plaudits also go to an audience who clearly knew the band and its material.
Calexico drummer John Convertino provided a powerful, ominous backbeat throughout the set, but it was longtime partner vocalist/guitarist Joey Burns who provided the polish for a set that included everything from blaring mariachi trumpets to grinding power chords from howling guitars. Both Burns and Convertino are veterans of the eccentric desert-art band Giant Sand, but the spooky, wispy Lou Reed vocals on Giant Sand's stuff and on tracks like "Nom de Plum" from Calexico's new album "Garden Ruin" were nowhere to be found.
Rather, it was Burns and his clear, earnest vocals that carried the tune while the band tore through scorching wall-of-sound arrangements that might very well have shaken the foundations of the grand old theater while the horns blared. Opening with an electric version of the tender, acoustic "Yours and Mine," Calexico set the tone for a night that would be marked more by bombast than wispiness.
On "All Systems Red," replete with lyrics like, "when the dread is flowing down my veins/I want to tear it all down and build it up again," Calexico established a noisy soundscape that would have made The Who envious. "Letter to Bowie Knife," an erstwhile acoustic number, was laced with power chords that deafened the audience, but in a good, cathartic way.
And if the dark but lovely "Cruel," played with the same power pop sensibility as other numbers in the set, does not become a hit, then there is no justice in the world. Calexico played it with the enthusiasm of a high school band on homecoming night.
The Pabst was kind enough to move the first several rows of chairs in front of the stage, presumably to let people dance. But it seemed more as though the dozens of people up front were loitering more than they were dancing. Calexico isn't so much dance music as it is musical spectacle.
And speaking of loitering, the opening band, Oakley Hill, needs to work on its presence lest it be accused of hanging around on stage while everyone else waits for the show to start. While its talent was evident, its stagecraft left a great deal to be desired. It often seemed as though the band members were confused as to what to do when they weren't directly involved in carrying the tune. They hovered over their instruments or the mikes as though they were awaiting instructions for their next move.
Oakley Hill was great -- to the extent they could be heard. Using everything from vibes to trumpets to fiddles and guitars to make their point, Oakley Hill fell victim to a muddy sound mix, which made it difficult to discern any nuance from the often bold sound they often created. Look, when you can't hear two trumpets blaring in a place as acoustically friendly as The Pabst, you've got a sound problem. And hearing the vibes was out of the question.
Still, Oakley Hill was the perfect complement to Calexico, and it was appropriate that they came out for a barn-burning "Song of Everything" for Calexico's first of three encore songs. The wonderful cacophony left the audience howling for just a few more numbers.
But in the end, it was no surprise that it was Calexico's night. And by the time it finished off with the powerful "Guero Canelo Or Corona," it had made a lot of new friends in Milwaukee to add to the ones it already had.
Mike said: Great review. Fortunately my wife and I were at the concert last night. I had read some things this week about the band and thought let's go check them out. I was lucky I did. My "Thanks" to the Pabst for bringing such a great group as Calexico to Milwaukee. Get them back again! Calexico you have the polish of a established group. The sound was unique and powerful and also soft and controlled. Come back.
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