The band Calexico takes its name from the California border city, and I must say that the name really gives a wonderful summary of its sound — a blend of the far-south of California (representative of the broader Southwest, including Arizona where the band is based) and Mexico, a place where two cultures collide and, one hopes, the best of both percolates to the top. This was certainly the case when Calexico played Friday night at the Lobero Theatre, an added show for the current season of Sings Like Hell.
Calexico’s set started with “Trigger” from the 1998 album The Black Light, but in a more sweeping, almost cinematic arrangement, thanks to the full band consisting of guitar (played by co-founding member Joey Burns, who also sings lead vocals), two trumpets (Jacob Valenzuela, Michael Carbajal), keyboards (Sergio Mendoza), pedal steel guitar (Paul Niehaus, who also sometimes played electric guitar), bass guitar (Chris Giambelluca), and drums (co-founding member John Convertino), plus some additional percussion.
Next up was “Roka,” for which the trumpets gave a Latin flavor and Valenzuela sang a verse in Spanish. If you shut your eyes during this song, you might have thought that you were in a sweaty cantina rather than a venerable theater in Santa Barbara.
The instrumentation changed a bit for the next songs, “Sunken Waltz,” in which one trumpeter switched to marimba and another to guitar, and “Across The Wire,” for which accordian was added to the mix to further enrich the sound.
An early highlight was “Sonic Wind,” with an echoed, muted trumpet break by Valenzuela that left the audience entranced. Another was “Minas De Cobre,” which would not be out of place on the soundtrack for a spaghetti Western, here with the pedal steel guitar playing the melody instead of the violin on the recorded version.
Although most associated with their blend of American and Mexican roots music, “Deep Down” and “Two Silver Trees” showed a more indie-rock side to the band, nicely illustrating that Calexico should not be viewed as a one-trick pony.
The main set also included “Inspiracion,” sung in Spanish by Valenzuela and with cool trumpet and piano solos: “Stray,” with horn blasts preceding a great descending riff, and the loud and fast “Crystal Frontier,” which closed out the main set. The encore consisted of “Slowness,” a super-cool cover of Love’s “Alone Again Or,” which is perhaps the missing link to Calexico’s sound, and “Guero Canelo,” which moved some to dance in the aisles.
The evening kicked off with a short, engaging set by John Elliott, who accompanied himself on acoustic guitar. He began with the amusing charmers “The American West” and “Concerning the Lincoln and Douglas Debates or Love Found Lost,” the latter of which includes the lyrics “I wanna fall in love and it’s gotta be tonight, I don’t care if it’s you, I don’t care if it’s her, I don’t care if it’s both of you.” This song also gives dubious praise for Mormonism with “it’d be nice to have five wives, it’d be nice to have five husbands, it’d be nice to live in Utah.”
Elliott got the audience to sing along with his next song’s chorus, “I am unemployed / I ain’t got no prospects anymore,” which all seemed quite amusing but took a darker turn with intensifying music and lyrics such as “I’ve been thinking about getting a gun / Surprising everyone.” His last song, “The Ballad of Wallace Green and His Dog,” was the haunting tale of a man who finds that “There’s only so much that a man can take before he breaks.”
All told, the evening nicely delivered the goods that we expect from Sings Like Hell — great music, great singing and a great time.
— Noozhawk contributing writer Jeff Moehlis is a professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.