Live at the Rocca Malestestiana, Cesena, Italy 18th August 2015

calexico-poster“How do you say ‘oomph’ in Italian?” asks Joey Burns; as in ‘You need to give it more oomph’!

Fellow Calexico-in-chief and drummer, John Convertino shrugs his shoulders in reply.

Burns poses the question because he wants the crowd to show more grit, spunk, blood, fire, energy, passion; AND he wants them to raise the volume level for the big ‘whoooaaaa’ at the beginning of their supercharged rendition of Minutemen’s Corona.

With this prompt, he succeeds although, it’s fair to say, the overall level of enthusiasm ebbs and flows during the course of this 90 minute open air concert.

An obstacle to more universal acclaim lies in the fact that much of the newer material lacks the drama (oomph?) of Calexico’s earlier, more familiar songs. With notable exceptions, World Undone for example, these are less spacious or ambient in feel than the kind of widescreen post-Giant Sand tunes that distinguished an album such as The Black Light (1998).

The men in (mostly) black - Calexico tour band. L/R: Ryan Alfred, Sergio Mendoza, John Convertino, Joey Burns, Jacob Valenzuela, Jairo Zavala

The men in (mostly) black – Calexico tour band. L/R: Ryan Alfred, Sergio Mendoza, John Convertino, Joey Burns, Jacob Valenzuela, Jairo Zavala

“This next song is from the album Algiers”, Burns announces at one point, but the response is underwhelming. “Who has heard of that record?”, he inquires. A few guys near the front raise their hands. “That’s three of you at least”, he notes drily.

Algiers (2012) is, like their latest album, Edge Of The Sun, leagues ahead of the vast majority of contemporary releases but, crucially, it does not quite have the magical sweep of their earlier albums.

Undeterred, the band play several songs from Algiers, including a fine stripped down version of Fortune Teller, where Joey Burns is accompanied only by Ryan Alfred on double bass.

Over the years, Burns and Convertino have honed their writing skills to the point that their songs have become more conventionally pop-rock orientated. If you are inclined to be flippant (and why not!) you could now call them the Lennon & McCartney of Desert Rock.

This is not a bad place to be but it is the Tex-Mex influenced material that makes the band’s sound so distinctive and it is these songs that still stand out in a live set. Also,their marvellous rendition of Love’s ‘Alone Again, Or’ is a reminder of how, as with Corona, they can take a classic tune and stamp it with their own identity.

Carla Lippis - curves in all the right places and electrifying on stage

The woman in black – Carla Lippis – curves in all the right places and electrifying on stage

Ironically, it is the excellent Italian support band Sacri Cuori who best capture the twangy Ennio Morricone-esque atmosphere that made early Calexico tunes like Trigger and Stray so captivating.

They are an ideal warm up act with a formidable secret weapon in the comely shape of Carla Lippis, a dark-haired Australian beauty with a brassy, full-blooded voice and a paid-up member of the ‘real women have curves’ charm school. She is nothing short of electrifying on stage and it’s a pity Calexico didn’t have the time to rehearse a song with her; she could have made for a killer version of The Ballad Of Cable Hogue.

Burns and Convertino have always thrived on the spirit of collaboration with soul mates in the States or others they meet around the world. You get the sense that, more than ever, they depend on these other artists to keep their inspiration alive. You only have to look at the credits on Edge Of The Sun, where practically every track has a different guest,  to see this.

For this concert, it is evident how the sound opens up when the extrovert guitarist Jairo Zavakala and trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela sing in Spanish. You see also how the band is energised for the encore when they are joined on stage by members of Sacri Cuori.

The extended rendition of Güero Canelo played by these massed ranks surpasses even Crystal Frontier as the staple crowd-pleasing finale. It is so great that I was prepared to set aside any lack of ‘oomph’ in what went before and concede that Calexico still have what it takes to put on a hell of a live show