On the Borderline

A tequila toast to Calexico

For the first time ever, Calexico is preparing to play in Calexico. But band co-founder Joey Burns still has a long way to go, driving through Saskatchewan on a day off between a set of jazz festivals in Canada. Before they arrive at their namesake border town, though, they'll play a hometown Tucson date with Tortoise, a two-day stint with the Shins in Minneapolis, and a Fourth of July opening gig for Lyle Lovett in New York City. It's a fitting schedule—playing beside illustrious jazz musicians, a beloved Chicago art-rock outfit, up-to-the-minute indie-rock darlings, and the "Cowboy Man" himself all in one outing—because that's how Calexico works. Their melting-pot music is Latin, jazz, blues, country and rock all at once, with only Burns and core member John Convertino as a common denominator.

On the way to Saskatoon, Burns' voice weaves in and out of cell-phone range as he talks about how this tour is one step closer to a vision he has for the band.

"I had a dream once of doing a series of concerts across the U.S.-Mexican border with both Mexican musicians and American musicians, kind of zigzagging across the border," he says. "But this is the closest I think we'll get to having done that. We're just playing in San Diego and Calexico, but who knows? Maybe it'll lead to something."

For now, at least, they've already got the Mexican-American assemblage of musicians—alongside them in another van is Tucson mariachi orchestra Mariachi Luz de Luna, veterans of a last European tour and featured on Calexico's most recent EP, Convict Pool. They make for something of a jarring contrast onstage with their traditional regalia and their horns and strings, but it's that kind of contrast that gives Calexico—a southwestern band familiar with border-crossing both as a metaphor and a social reality—an identity.

See, there's an artist friend of Burns' named Victor Gastelum (responsible for quite a few Calexico album covers, by the way), who nudged the band away from their original name, Folk—which turned out to be taken anyway—toward the arguably more reflective name they've got now. Burns' original home recordings, called Calexico-Superstition Highway, were an eclectic, proto-Calexico shuffle through European gypsy music, miner's blues and traditional Latin influences. It made Burns think of Gastelum's art, and it made Gastelum think of border towns like Calexico.

Gastelum's work takes hints from traditional Mexican art and applies them to urban Chicano images—souped-up cars, Latino kids smoking cigarettes, a Madonna with a hubcap halo—and at the risk of getting too cerebral, it's fair to say Calexico play echoes to his visuals. Gastelum once wrote that "mixing these images and creating a new image from them is not only like being able to talk in several languages at once, but also inventing a new one in the process." And that's Calexico, too.

On Convict Pool, Calexico covers the Minutemen's melancholy punk rock polka "Corona" (famously bastardized as the Jackass theme song) with a lush layer of strings and horns—and hoots and hollers from the mariachis—that fill out the song in a way that it seems it was always waiting for. What happens when Luz de Luna performs with Calexico is like what happens when somebody uncorks a round of tequila at a party—the air just seems to sparkle a little bit brighter. Like Gastelum's artwork, the song puts two cultures head to head and celebrates the clashes and the complements. It's so fresh and triumphant it feels like it's time to make a toast to something.

So here's to Calexico, for appreciating the music around them as something more than a kitschy accompaniment to chicken enchiladas. It's pretty obvious Burns and Convertino are not just a couple of gringos who decided over margaritas at Chevy's that they should rip off some mariachi riffs to rev up their spaghetti-western shtick. Instead, there's a deep respect for the tradition that lives within these performers. They're not trying to blur the lines between desert-noir indie rock and mariachi—they're just zigzagging across them.

Calexico performs with Greater California and Lomax Monk at Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600. Mon., 10 p.m. $12. 21+.
 
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