With all the media access that The Wandering Lamb have the privilege to attend, there are a few bands that we feel very fortunate to write about and perhaps somewhat out of our depth, Calexico are such band and with the grandeur of the beautiful Hamer Hall in Melbourne, tonight certainly was a special occasion. Following the delivery of their excellent latest album Edge of the Sun, steered by Joey Burns and John Convertino, the band play to a devoted crowd with support from the slightly “sloshed” but talented Krista Polvere.
Polvere is another local accomplished singer/songwriter, born in the sleepy town of Adelaide but now residing in Melbourne, Polvere writes mature, honest and brazen country music that could easily have her mistake as a mid-west US local girl. With Hamer Hall working to a very strict time schedule (this is a performance not a gig after all), Polvere walks on stage with her guitar at the ready, beaming with excitement. We learn through her set that a few wines with Calexico before-hand may have her caught a bit tipsy, she was full of beans, full of life, full of joy and loved a good natter. Telling us that the last time she was at the Hamer Hall was to see her idol Patti Smith, she pondered openly the disbelief that she was now on stage.
Playing solo, her opening song Bluebird played out pitch perfect, her voice sultry, touching and heartfelt and her guitar rhythmically playing along. Following each song is more chit-chat and we certainly learn that Polvere unashamingly is happy to open up, perhaps it was queued by nerves or just someone feeling the effects of a few quick wine. We learn of her concerns with her sanity and fears that her ex-husband may be in the audience, as she sings a song about her marriage that is now over.
Beat Hotel follows, a song that Polvere wrote when invited to play St. Kilda’s Espy Hotel (a landmark dive pub for those not from Melbourne) as her way to ensure her acceptance for being more than a melancholy country singer/songwriter. Closing out with her latest single Devils in Me, with a bit more chatting about the film clip of her serenading a mannequin is met with laughter and applause as she makes way for a now eager audience.
First things first, I won’t claim to be a “fan” of Calexico or owning any records for that matter, but what I do know is the respect and influence they have earned in the industry and for that I am a supporter. So with this in mind, I felt privileged to be invited to experience what The Guardian have claimed as one of the best live experiences. The band celebrate 20 years of releasing music together, not that this was any cause of celebratory vibe, for what Calexico do live, is bring an air of festivity and jubilation to their performance, they are a solid and grateful band. Set against Hamer Hall’s simplistic stage of long draped curtains and understated blue and red stage lights, the band take their places behind an impressive vibraphone, double bass, guitar, steel pedal guitar, trumpet, synth and drums.
Here is a band of two musical parts, one part Latino/Spanish and the other Alt-Country and with each studio or soundtrack album delivered over the last 20 years, each release collides both influences to create an eclectic and truly unique ensemble. I couldn’t help draw comparisons to the brilliant Devotchka who would make any Calexico fan just as happy. Joey Burns and John Convertino lead the band like orchestra conductors while their compadre layer their instrumental charm of percussion and rhythms over it, whether it be to conjure the Latino passion (where they truly come alive) or hold the tempo during times of the reflective and melancholy side of the band (which is my preferred).
Falling From The Sky, opening track from the latest album sounds beautiful and uplifting, with its streaming organ hum, acoustic undertones and trumpets that belt in at the chorus, sounding electrifying and provoke a handful of goose bumps as the band lead the audience to a hand-clap, of which there are many tonight. A few personal phone cameras start kicking and the ever efficient Hamer Hall staff, like ninjas in the night, dart around as if on a mission to defeat all evil. It was very distracting and just a little OTT.
Maybe on Monday, one of the standout tracks from their previous album, Algiers, calms the audience into reflective mode on the back of a few Latino inspired tracks that had a few more heads bobbing while eyes remained transfixed. It is these particular tracks that show the true mastery of the bands song writing depth. Cumbia de Donde, fills the hall with celebratory vibe and it is these songs that brings the band together both in spirit and instrumentation, the maracas used to full effect and a testament to their often underrated qualities to complete a rhythm section.
Another stand out, Bullet and Rocks, that features Iron and Wine’s Sam Beam on the album (not live unfortunately) sounds impeccable with it’s commanding vocals, percussion and the raw guitar sound of Joey Burn’s 1962 Airline guitar that had a formal introduction after its temperamental tuning needs. When Angels Played, equally followed soon after with the bands heart sent right back to Tuscon, Arizona, where the band formed.
Some other highlights tonight came from Jacob Valenzuela, with his accomplished trumpeting, vibraphone and latino vocals on a handful of tracks that had the most energised applause tonight. Closing the night Crystal Frontier, taken from their 2001 release Even My Sure Things Fall Through, it showcases the bands true craft and ability to cut through all defined genres and gives each instrument its own platform to go a bit loose, a real sense of “jam” about it, Valenzuela, shows his trumpeting prowess to the end.
Photography by Anna Madden