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Gerald Carpenter: Calexico, Del Castillo to Spice Up the Lobero

Sings Like Hell series continues with concerts at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Season No. 29 of the sensational Sings Like Hell series continues, times two, this weekend with a brace of highly spiced concerts at the Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido St. in Santa Barbara.

First, at 8 p.m. Friday, we will hear from the Tuscon-based band Calexico, plus the irreverent singer-songwriter John Elliot from Los Angeles. At 8 p.m. Saturday, the explosive Latin band Del Castillo from Austin, plus another irreverent singer-songwriter — from God knows where — Claude Hopper (a.k.a. David Cowan).

Calexico is sometimes identified as an “Americana/alternative country band,” which is all right, so far as it goes, except that it doesn’t give much of a clue about how they sound. In addition to the country sound implied by those terms, their music also has been hugely influenced by traditional Latin sounds of mariachi, conjunto, cumbia and Tejano music.

The two founding fathers, Joey Burns and John Convertino, met in Los Angeles in 1990. Burns was studying music at UC Irvine, and Convertino was playing drums with Howe Gelb in Giant Sand. Burns joined Giant Sand, which moved to Tucson in 1994.

Burns and Convertino then formed the Friends of Dean Martin — later Latinized to the Friends of Dean Martinez. After a few false starts and arguments, the band drifted for a few years, keeping alive as sidemen before forming Calexico, which is called after — duh — the border town of the same name.

Calexico is an interesting choice for a Sings Like Hell concert, since they have quite a few instrumental numbers on their play list, and even the songs with vocals have exceptionally long instrumental leads. This is inevitable, I would say, in a band so fabulously rich in instrumental talent. When they do start singing — the intros are invariably brilliant — the vocal style is bound to be eclectic, to say the least. The songs they write are very fine, and their covers of other artists’ material are done with conviction and dazzling technical skill.

The current members of Calexico are Burns (vocals, guitars, bass, cello, keyboards, accordion, percussion and vibraphone), Convertino (drums, percussion and piano), Paul Niehaus (steel guitar and guitars), Jacob Valenzuela (trumpet, keyboards, vibraphone and vocals), Martin Wenk (trumpet, guitar, keyboards, accordion, glockenspiel, vibraphone, harmonica and French horn) and Volker Zander (standup bass and electric bass).

With Del Castillo, on the other hand, the rubric Sings Like Hell could have been coined to describe their lead vocalist, Alex Ruiz, whose voice is so true, so powerful and so bursting with soul that if he ever ran for office he might call himself El Pasionario. The band as a whole, especially when they are doing their own material, seems to be channeling several centuries of Spanish-American history, yet you have only to hear them perform a beautiful classic like “Malagueňa Salerosa” to understand how contemporary they are. They do the song wonderfully well, of course, yet with an unsettling absence of self-pity, which I assume was built into this piece. They respect tradition, but do not allow themselves to be imprisoned by it.

Brothers Rick and Mark del Castillo founded their band almost by accident in the fall of 2000. Until then, the two had pursued separate and successful careers as guitarists in different rock bands. They had never collaborated. Then, in that year, they decided to combine forces and burn a CD that even the most conservative members of their family would like. Each had been playing mainly hard rock, blues and even metal. Now they started using acoustic guitars.

Their friend, singer Ruiz, began writing lyrics to set in the brothers’ songs, and the band came together with astonishing speed. The resulting CD exceeded all expectations. They began playing gigs around Austin to ever-more packed and enthusiastic houses. They attracted the attention of filmmakers Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, and their songs began popping up on soundtracks. Rodriguez shot a DVD of Del Castillo Live. They were on their way.

As currently constituted, Del Castillo includes Rick del Castillo (guitar and vocals), Mark del Castillo (guitar and vocals), Ruiz (lead vocals, guitar and harmonica), Albert Besteiro (bass), Mike Zeoli (drums), Carmelo Torres (percussion and vocals) and Noah Mosgofian (congas and timbales).

Single tickets to either Calexico or Del Castillo are $35 and are available through the Lobero box office at 33 E. Canon Perdido St. or 805.963.0761. Click here to order online.

— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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