Members of Calexico, who called themselves Spoke at first and put out an album of the same name in 1996, are, in truth, from Tucson. “To live here,” Arizona-based singer and Calexico collaborator Marianne Dissard once told me, “you have to be in tune with rocks and cactus.” Perhaps this explains Giant Sand, the band that Joey Burns and John Convertino were part of prior to starting up Spoke/Calexico out in the high desert, where a small art scene flourishes.
You may not have heard them — Calexico is one of those stealth bands with a broad fan base and much fellow-musician love that fly under the radar of the music industry. For lack of a better descriptor, music writers lump bands like Calexico under the broad heading of “roots rock,” which can mean anything, really. Used in this case, roots rock describes an earthy blend of strangeness that fans of Calexico sometimes call “desert noir.”
In 1998, the Wall Street Journal stepped up and called Calexico’s first official album, The Black Light, one of the year’s best. They played a lot of indie arts festivals thereafter and livened up dead-boring acts like Pavement as a tour opener. What Calexico did then, and still does now, is like no other: they toss traditional Latin-American music with 1950s American truck-driving rock amid structures on loan from the golden era of jazz.
Some pop critics have called Calexico subtle. Whatever. Calexico makes it work, more often than not, by going big. By 2000 and Hot Rail, Convertino and Burns had added horns and strings to the base rhythm section without losing the message of what their band was all about. Calexico is touring now in support of album number seven, Algiers, so named for the town in New Orleans in which it was recorded. Did I mention pedal steel? Yeah. They’ve got that, too.
The Dodos also perform.
Calexico: Belly Up, Thursday, October 25, 8 p.m., 858-481-8140. $22 advance/$24 day of show.