at Barnsdall Theater, January 26
At this point in their career, it seems only natural for Calexico to play the type of venue that can be described as “intimate” — sitting room only, wine and Sierra Nevada served at the bar, and KCRW sponsored, of course. Their appearance Thursday night was inarguably intimate, as this Tucson-based sextet, whose specialty is Southwest, Mexican and mariachi-blended rock, revealed a subtle shift in direction. Of course, the Arizona mesa still thrives in their cinematic sweeps of trumpet, marimba, guitars and drums, but as they played selections from their forthcoming Garden of Ruin, it became apparent that Calexico are determined to get their rock on. This is a softer rock, no doubt, more of a shale than a quartz. But the distorted guitars of “Letter to a Bowie Knife” and the building momentum of “All Systems Red,” which culminates in walls of reverb more commonly found in bands like Interpol, were the signs of a group determined to build off their base sound. Joey Burns’ voice, confident up and down the scale yet always soft and emotive, gets better as the years go by, and while he mostly stuck to his assortment of acoustic guitars, he found the time to grab his vintage electric National and peel off a solo or two. And what makes John Convertino one of the best drummers playing today? It’s the way he plays by barely playing, the way he slides his sticks across his drumskins like a canvas, the way he holds back until the last possible moment before asserting his rhythm. The mostly hushed musical tone of the night couldn’t stifle the enthusiasm of this transfixed crowd, leaving Calexico free to fill out their sound in a relaxed and melodic manner. (Burns even led an improvised version of “Happy Birthday” for an audience member, making up the lyrics and tune as he went — sounds cringe-inducing, but the execution was flawless.) By the time yet another masterful evening from the Southwest’s finest was over, one had the sense that this year represents a new beginning.