Calexico, Forum, London

 

When the trumpeter announces he is going to have a go at singing, you might think it is time to head to the bar, yet Jacob Valenzuela’s affecting rendition of his own composition "No Te Vayas" is greeted warmly and repays attention.

This is no slight on frontman Joey Burn’s vocal abilities, just as sign of how Tucson, Arizona’s Calexico have matured as a band. Formed in 1996 as a vehicle for Burns and drummer John Convertino, the duo have explored various permutations of alt.country and Mexicana over seven albums.

Now they have emerged after a four-year break with Algiers, garnering reviews that suggest it is their strongest set of songs of date. Accordingly, it forms the bulk of tonight’s set, though the band are so brisk after such a long hiatus, there are plenty of diversions to come, including Valenzuela’s moment in the spotlight.

That still leaves much for Burns to accomplish, especially in a set geared towards unfamiliar material. In the past, Calexico have occasionally failed to convince on two counts. There is often a curatorial air about their compilations of global tastes, sounds and stories, with Burns’s quavering voice failing to impose itself on tales of outsiders and loners that required more grit.

Tonight, though, he is full of Springsteen-style energy. If his air punching has a touch of Tim Henman about it, we can still enjoy the incongruity of a rangy indie bloke shouting “Let me hear you scream”. He and the band have to contend with a flat sound that makes them the quietest septet to play a venue of this size.

It takes the edge off Burns’s testifying, Jim Morrison-snarl in the middle of ‘Sinner In The Sea’, though allows more delicate moments to glow, especially the ballad ‘Two Silver Trees’ and the thoughtfully mournful ‘Para’ propelled by Convertino’s subtle wristy action.

That and ‘Maybe On Monday’ from the current album represent their most personal, direct writing to date. Elsewhere, the outfit are in playful mood, the two brass players bolting stage front like eager puppies as they bring the mariachi heat to ‘Across The Wire’. Established material has evolved as Calexico have absorbed wider influences.

With its Buena Vista feel, the stately ‘ Roka (Danza de la Muerte)’ could be beamed in from some crumbling Havana ballroom. As north London’s Americana fans clumsily attempt to salsa, Calexico have been remade as pied pipers of the Latino groove. 

 

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