Meaty music from the Latinos

Lamb Chop/Calexico | Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
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The Independent Culture

One of the many delights to be had during this final show commemorating the 10th anniversary of City Slang lay in observing how the two bands from the United States, Calexico and Lambchop, so fully embody their label's eclectic and wildly imaginative vision. With their combination of the Latin instincts of America's south-west with contemporary songwriting, Calexico achieve an exquisite synthesis of old and new. Using acoustic and pedal steel guitars, trumpets and all manner of percussive textures, the prolific John Covertino and Joey Burns manage to create giant vistas of sound, from haunted, tequila-soaked rambles to shrieking, mariachi-style hoedowns.

"The Ballad Of Cable Hogue" perfectly evokes a landscape of parched sunsets and dusty frontiers, peopled by toothless degenerates. An extended version of "Minas De Cobre" heralded the arrival of a merry band of mariachi trumpeters, violinists and guitarists dressed in full Mexican regalia.

Covertino and Burns named their band after a town on the border where California and Mexico meet. That this parched desert settlement among the buckbrush and cacti could be so richly brought to life on London's South Bank is an achievement indeed.

Every member of Lambchop has a full-time day job; Kurt Wagner, the driving force of the band, lays floors for a living. During an interview earlier this year he told me that every time he takes his band on tour, he loses bagfuls of money.

Well, on Saturday night they must have stretched themselves beyond all redemption. There were at least 20 people sprawled across the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall - the band's core plus a 12-piece orchestra. It seems that as far as they are concerned, the more the merrier and to hell with the consequences.

At first, Wagner couldn't contain his excitement. "Just a few days ago we were in my basement, and now we're here," he gasped. In fact, we could still have been in his basement, such is the informal atmosphere. A baseball-capped Wagner sat hunched over his guitar on a stool and blinked nervously into the lights. An unlikely genius, but a genius all the same.

The spirit of the late Curtis Mayfield loomed large in the flourishes of string and brass and Wagner's tender falsetto. Of course, Wagner's skewed humour and wry observations on the human condition are stamped all over these songs. In "The Old Gold Shoe" he says "Behold and you know everyone's a ringer/he's not even a very good singer." Such bashfulness was unwarranted.

Wagner was at his soulful best. The whooping and cheering that followed "Up With People", a joyous, funk-inflected tribute to procreation, left the singer red-faced and overwrought. "I just don't understand it," he muttered. Well, he'd better get used to it.