Joey Burns likes to describe the performances by his band Calexico as a
celebration of life. “When we get up to play, we embrace the whole evening. We
love a chance to celebrate, and we think it’s a ride you would like to go on,”
the multi-instrumentalist said last week, talking to The Jerusalem Post on tour
from Louisville, Kentucky.
Maybe that’s why Calexico’s electrifying 2009
shows in Israel are still considered to be on par with the best performances by
a visiting artist since… ever.
According to the Post’s review of the
band’s show at Tel Aviv’s Barby Club, “the band managed to transport a packed
bar full of Israelis into a world right out of a Cormac McCarthy novel” that
combined “jazz, Mexican folk, old country, Americana, southern rock and
psychedelic rock, but it relies mainly on a trumpet duo, traditional Mexican
folk influences and twangy steel guitar.”
“The crowd is so essential
about where we can go with a show, and playing in Tel Aviv was a great
experience, and a nice surprise to how see how warm and accepting the reception
was. There was a very intense positive energy from the shows in Israel that I
still remember,” said the 43-year-old Burns, who founded the band in 1996 with
musical partner John Convertino.
Since then, through seven albums,
endless touring and various band member configurations, they’ve explored
virtually every American motif on the way to establishing themselves as one of
the keenest practitioners of roots music.
Whether recording with and
producing albums for like-minded artists like Neko Case and Victoria Williams,
working on soundtracks like I’m Not There for the acclaimed 2007 biographical
film based on Bob Dylan, or collaborating with icons like Willie Nelson and
Nancy Sinatra, Calexico eagerly synthesizes elements of everything from dusty,
lo-fi rock, Duane Eddy twang, and Springsteenian earnest Americana, to spaghetti
western noir, mariachi and Portuguese Fado.
For Burns, it all comes
together onstage, where he and Convertino – supported by Paul Niehaus on pedal
steel guitar, Ryan Alfred on upright and electric bass, Sergio Mendoza on
keyboards, multi-instrumentalist Martin Wenk, and Jacob Valenzuela on trumpet –
explore the possibilities that seven musicians can achieve on a given night. The
result is dynamic, freewheeling, and as far removed from the choreographed
Beyonce-Super Bowl halftime show ethics of entertainment as popular culture can
“We love the subtleties in our arrangements.
and textures make things not so easily recognizable. There’s lots of juggling
between instruments and roles; sometimes it sounds like it’s one instrument
playing, but it’s really three,” said Burns.
“We just did a show in
Virginia with Camper Van Beethoven, and they were saying they loved the fact
that you couldn’t tell sometimes who was making a certain sound onstage – like,
‘Where is that coming from?’ That kind of mystery and the patience we attach to
the writing, arranging and the performance is an important part of
Even in the middle of a two-month tour, far from his wife and twin
two-year-old daughters back in Arizona, Burns doesn’t – and seemingly can’t –
provide show-biz stock answers to stock questions. Much like his work, he
appears intent on making every conversation touch on something real about his
life, his music or the world.
“My wife is calling on the other line right
now, but I’ll call her back – we only were able to talk for a little bit last
night,” he said. “It’s always challenging because this lifestyle is never
normal. My wife knows that, but at the same time, I don’t want to put her in a
difficult position, so I’ve adjusted.”
That meant taking a long break
from touring and being close to home over the last couple of years, while he and
Covertino did soundtrack work, produced records for other artists and wrote
songs for their new album Algiers.
“We’re in our 30s and 40s now and
balancing the act as we go. And we share our experiences on the road as a
community of friends and family, people who understand what each other is going
through,” said Burns, referring to a poignant song on Algiers called
“That’s kind of my ode to the commitment.
The strain in
your heart still remains, the weight of it sometimes seems impossible to bear,
and somehow you manage, via dedication and devotion.
That brings out
great qualities, for us, as individuals and collectively as a band through our
songs and music. The themes kind of all tie in naturally together.”
life-affirming philosophy is also manifested in Calexico’s activism back in its
home state of Arizona, where its members have been involved with the issue of
gun-control laws following the 2011 mass shooting in Tucson that wounded former
US representative Gabrielle Giffords. They also performed and campaigned for
Giffords’s former aide Ron Barber last fall in his successful bid to win her
vacated Congress seat.
“It’s a small example of how we get involved in
our world – even though we’re just musicians,” said Burns.
involved with Giffords’s run for Congress and helped her in both terms, and did
the same for Ron,” he continued.
“And now we’re helping with the healing
[after the attack]. It was important for us to do so due to the fallout from
some extreme policies taken by the state government in Arizona regarding our
border policies. We had to deal with issues of boycott, just like
He was referring to the state’s crackdown on illegal immigration
from Mexico, a policy that resulted in many states invoking a boycott of Arizona
He said he didn’t pretend to understand the deep complexities
of the conflict on Israel’s borders, but the smaller-scale conflict on Arizona’s
border had sharpened his appreciation of the situation here. And since his first
trip to the country, he has found himself following the events in the Middle
East more closely.
“We weren’t even sure if our shows were going to take
place around the time of the conflict in Gaza [Operation Pillar of Defense].
This is such a sensitive area, and there are no simple answers,” he said. “We
have concern for both sides. And we care.”
He added, “We’re excited to
bring our voice there, the voice of compassion and understanding and healing
When we travel, we can see the effects – when we walk out
after the show and talk to people of all backgrounds and ages. It’s one of those
reassuring things that convince me I want to stay on this path, I want to do
good and I want to help others.”
His philosophy of music-as-life is
evident on the expansive, heartfelt Algiers, which was recorded last year in New
Orleans – a climate and vibe far away from the dusty deserts and small-town
ambience of Calexico’s music. However, instead of making a New Orleans-style
record with Dixieland or zydeco washes, he said the band made a Calexico
“We soaked up the environment and drew inspiration from the
place, but there is no overt influence of New Orleans in the songs.
maybe more crept in through the subtleties that I talked about earlier,” he
“The fun part, though, is going out and playing the songs live,” he
added. “This time, we have seven members instead of six. We’ve added a
keyboardist, Sergio Mendoza, who’s brought in some great Latin and Mexican
piano, and some accordion.
He’s adding a lot of parts from the new record
which would have been hard to do with six people – another pair of hands makes
it all the better.”
According to Burns, “now we’re going out and
reminding our audience of who we are and what we’re all about.”
anyone who’s seen Calexico would ever forget it.
Calexico will perform on
February 28 and March 1 at Tel Aviv’s Barby Club. For more info visit