New York's brainmelting heat wave finally broke last night, just in time for this Summerstage gig. Calexico is one my all-time favorite bands and a huge influence on the way I write for Secret Society, but their last couple of records have frustrated and underwhelmed me, so I was curious to see if the new material came off any better in a live setting. I'm a recent but enthusiastic convert to the New Pornographers, who hail from my hometown of Vancouver, and this would be my first time hearing them in person. I'd heard mixed things about their live shows -- serving up those dense, multi-layered power-pop confections live ain't easy -- but I love the songwriting so much I couldn't stay away. As for The Frames, the only thing I knew about them going in is that they're from Ireland.
As it turns out, The Frames are fundamentally a meat-and-potatoes folk-rock band, spiced liberally with loud-soft contrasts and sweeping cathartic choruses. Nothing especially earth-shattering, but the rhythm section was solid and frontman Glen Hansard's energy was thoroughly infectious -- he told the crowd several times how "fooking awesome" it was to be playing New York, and at one point mimed a phone call: "Hey mom, I'm in New York and people are singing a song I wrote." My favorite tune of theirs was one near the end of the set, about "a guy who has to drag a boat over a mountain." It opened with a hypnotic eighth-note guitar loop that put the tune in a rather different world from the previous songs, and I wish it had continued longer in that vein, instead of backsliding into straightahead pub rock. But hey, the crowd liked them well enough to demand an encore -- when's the last time you saw that happen for an opening band?
As the clouds begin to gather during his set, Glen did a little rain dance for the croud, and by the closing tune, the sky finally opened. I was dreading another epic lightning storm, like the one that cut short the Kronos Quartet/Philip Glass hit in Prospect Park last week, but luckily the rain was just light enough (and short-lived enough) to spread some much-needed relief over the croud.
Arizona-based Calexico used to be known for moody, vividly cinematic portraits of the American southwest. They wove an intricate tapestry of indie rock, folksy Americana, mariachi, flamenco, fado, lando, surf guitar, Ennio Morricone, minimalism, and jazz, and somehow made it all their own. They never sounded like pikers or plunderers. But recently -- both in last year's collaboration with Iron & Wine, In The Reins, and this year's Garden Ruin -- they've more or less abandoned the open-ended experimentalism and electicism that characterized their previous work in favor of standard song structures and quiet introspection. The old, fierce Calexico still lurks in the corners of the new tunes, but it feels like the band has caged and domesticated their best instincts. Still, they can be awe-inspiring live, so I held out hope that touring might have helped reshape the new material into something more compelling.
Well, it did -- but not as much as I'd hoped. As usual, Joey Burns's voice sounds much more impassioned and self-assured live -- the difference is really stunning, and I have no idea why his vocals never sound this good on record, but in person, he makes a much more convincing case for the new songs, especially "Roka" (the only song on Garden Ruin that sounds anything like the old Calexico) and "Cruel." But the difference in energy between even the best of the new songs and older favorites -- like the closer, "Crystal Frontier" -- was undeniable. The only other time the band really surged to their usual level was when backing up flamenco singer Salvador Duran (who made a brief guest appearance on In The Reins). Duran is an astonishingly good performer, and he practically walked away with the show, especially in his second appearance -- a Duran original with a Calexico arrangement, one that finally gave the band the opportunity to cut loose. I can only hope a full-length collaboration is in the works.
I've never been disappointed with a Calexico show, and despite what I wrote above, that didn't change last night. Regardless of the material, the band's grooves are always captivating and fluid, and, as expected, Joey gave it all up for us. It's impossible not to respond to that. And the last thing I want to be is one of those insufferable living stereotypes who cries "sellout" every time a band shifts direction. I'm even sympathetic to the band's impulse to go back to nuts-and-bolts songwriting -- I just hope that this is a temporary period of retrenchment and realignment, after which Calexico will allow themselves to open up again. Because seriously, there are thousands of bands out there making music that sounds more or less like the material on Garden Ruin, but records like Hot Rail and The Black Light are beyond category. I want Calexico to continue to grow and evolve -- I just don't want them to start sounding like everyone else.
As I mentioned above, I'd been warned by a few friends to lower my expectations for the New Pornographers' live set -- they were, I was told, much more of a studio band, and with both Neko Case and Dan Bejar off touring their respective solo projects, I admit to being a mite apprehensive. I wish I could say that my initial misgivings evaporated the moment Carl Newman & co. took the stage and lit into "Twin Cinema," but the truth is, as the tinny, disorted sound and howling vocal feedback caused the Pornographers' tight three-way vocal harmonies to scatter and fall, I sighed and thought "Oh god, here we go... ". The sound for both The Frames and Calexico had been excellent, so I don't know what caused it to suddenly fall apart for the headliners, although I have my suspcions. (They begin with drummer Kurt Dahle's vocal mic -- singing drummers are every sound tech's worst nightmare... )
It took a long time for the sound issues to finally get worked out, and while Carl put up a good front, he was clearly bugged by the whole situation. Things started to look up about half an hour into the set, and with the technical issues more or less out of the way, both the energy level and the musicianship went way up. Kathryn Calder (Carl's niece and Neko's regular sub with the Pornographers) had been struggling with her vocal parts early in the set, but on "Mass Romantic" she really stepped up and made it hers. Kurt finally settled into the pocket, relaxing enough to casually ham it up by twirling his sticks, and, much to my relief, he, too, started nailing his harmony vocals. (He also contrtiubted a very credible lead on ""Execution Day.") The highlights from the back end of the set, like "The Slow Descent Into Alcoholism," "From Blown Speakers," and "Sing Me Spanish Techno," were edgier and hit much harder than the album versions, but without sacrificing those intricate, towering, glorious pop constructs that makes the Pornographers so irresistable. Kudos to the band for keeping at it after a rough start and turning the set around -- which is, after all, the mark of a great live band.
Chris at Music Snobbery has the setlist.
More photos below the fold...