Spreading roots from Arizona to the world

Multi-instrumentalist Joey Burns and his Calexico compadre John Convertino return to Tel Aviv.

calexico370 (photo credit: Rocky Yosek)
(photo credit: Rocky Yosek)
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 possibly be.
“We love the subtleties in our arrangements.
Layers 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 it.”
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 “Hush.”
“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.”
That 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.
“We got 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 Israel.”
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 companies.
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 through music.
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 record.
“We soaked up the environment and drew inspiration from the place, but there is no overt influence of New Orleans in the songs.
It’s maybe more crept in through the subtleties that I talked about earlier,” he said.
“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.”
As if 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 www.barby.co.il