CALEXICO onstage in Tel Aviv in 2015.  (photo credit: LIOR KETER)
CALEXICO onstage in Tel Aviv in 2015. (photo credit: LIOR KETER)
Fourth time's the charm as Calexico returns to Israel

Like his seemingly eternally optimistic nature, Joey Burns looks back on the lockdowns and isolation of the COVID era as having positive elements.

The 50-something co-founder and frontman for Calexico, one of the United States’ most accomplished bands, explains that the separation from his bandmates enabled them to regroup and record one of their best albums in their 30 years together: El Mirador.

“We had to be very patient and wait for everyone to get vaccinated and make sure it was safe to get together,” Burns told The Jerusalem Post from his home in Boise, Idaho, where he recently moved after 27 years in Tucson, Arizona.

“Before that, we even managed to put out a holiday album at the end of 2020, which we all did remotely from our homes. The following summer, we started working in person.”

In June 2021, Burns flew back to Tucson, where band multi-instrumentalist Sergio Mendoza had built a backyard home studio. Calexico’s drummer, co-founder and Burns’ partner John Covertino, flew in with his kit from his home in El Paso, Texas.


 “It was incredible. We met, hung out, laughed and worked on a lot of music. We recorded musical sketches of some 30 songs and honed in to complete 12 of them for El Mirador,” said Burns.

The result is a new chapter for the band, which has led a sprawling musical adventure with a rustic desert base to springboard into everything from lo-fi rock and Springsteenian Americana to spaghetti western noir, mariachi and Portuguese Fado. El Mirador contains a healthy dose of south-of-the-border accents and vibes, something that Burns said was intentional.

“In some ways, we wanted to give the record a more festive and celebratory, dynamic feel. Our live shows have a lot more Latin and upbeat rhythms, and some fans commented how they would like to see more of that on record. It was a great idea and, especially coming out of the pandemic, we get the point that the best way to bring people together is through music that celebrates life.”

That path only became apparent once the core band was together in the same room for the first time in a couple of years, where the only rule was to create something different.

“Change is healthy for any entity, it pays to keep things moving and reinvent yourself, and I think we certainly did that with the new album. I went to Tucson with only one musical idea, and I looked to John and Sergio for inspiration,” said Burns. “It’s all about being in the moment, when you’re writing and recording, you have to let go of fixed ideas and listen to what’s happening around you.”

That method seems to have worked out well for Burns, Covertino and their rotating gang of musicians who have joined them in the studio and on the road for the last two decades.

“John and I have been the musical pilots of this project since the beginning and over time, we’ve had a lot of members join us, leave and come back. We’re a collective, in a way. We try to operate as democratically and openly as possible, but ultimately, John and I make the final decisions,” said Burns.

 “I feel incredibly fortunate and lucky to have had a long career in music. I’m thankful for my bandmates who stuck it out for so long. We’ve managed to have moderate success and have maintained a diverse career, doing music for film and TV, and backing other artists. It’s that diversity that keeps things fresh,” added Burns, alluding to acclaimed collaborations with artists from Neko Case to Iron & Wine, and playing integral roles in the soundtrack to the 2007 film about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There.

“It’s always fun coming back to Tel Aviv, I love it. And because we’re always playing different venues, I have no expectations and it’s always a different experience.”

Joey Burns

Four trips to Israel

 Along the way, thanks to steady touring featuring rousing live performances, they’ve developed a loyal following. That includes in Israel, where Calexico began performing in 2009 at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv, returning there in 2013 and appearing at the larger Gesher Theater in 2015.

That trend continues next week on July 30, when Calexico performs at the new Kav Rakia outdoor venue at Park Ariel Sharon, near Ben-Gurion Airport.

According to the Post’s review of the band’s 2009 show, Calexico 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, relying mainly on a trumpet duo, traditional Mexican folk influences and a twangy steel guitar.

“It’s always fun coming back to Tel Aviv, I love it. And because we’re always playing different venues, I have no expectations and it’s always a different experience,” said Burns, explaining how he’s able to conjure up the mood to be on show after show.

“For sure, our concerts can be very energetic, more so than our records. Especially when people are standing, we feed off the energy of the crowd and we play off of each other. I get nervous before every show, so I’m able to transfer that nervous energy and immerse myself in the music,” he said.

Like the band’s previous visits to Israel, next week’s has been accompanied by calls from a certain segment of their following to stay away to protest what they see as the government’s discriminatory policy toward the Palestinians. And like their previous visits, Burns rejected the calls out of hand.

“It reminds of artists who were boycotting Arizona back in 2010,” he said, referring to a state bill that compelled police officers to challenge anyone they suspected of being an illegal immigrant to prove their immigration status.

“We lived in Arizona then, and what we were trying to do was work from within to encourage audiences to get out and vote against the bill,” he said.

 “In general, artists shouldn’t be told when or where or whether to perform or not. Art shouldn’t be eliminated, we need inspiration and openness, and artists can help be a positive element for change.”

Anyone who’s experienced the transformative qualities of a Calexico performance can attest to that.

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