Celtic Connections: Calexico at The Royal Concert Hall, 20/1/17

With eight records of well-regarded borders Americana, multilingual, musically omnivorous Calexico have become a bit of an institution in the still solidly English-speaking world of alternative music.

Tonight they perform as a seven-piece including a pair of brass players and joined by a host of guests who explore the various subgenres of music that find a home in the borderlands, both real and metaphorical.

 

Opening with a trio of their own material, Calexico ease the audience in gently but with this brief salvo out of the way, it’s over to the guests for the more collaborative portion of the night.

First up is Mexican singer-songwriter Juan Cirerol whose songs are nicely filled out by the Calexico ensemble, but the first real showstopper comes with Breton-Welsh singer Katell Keineg whose songwriting on ‘Olé, Conquistador’ and the superlative ‘The Bay of Araby’ draws on James Joyce, cultural alienation and the refugee crisis and earns big cheers from an impressed audience.

Next up Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno and Calexico’s live guitarist Jairo Zavala step into the spotlight for a trio of tracks from his own DePedro project of which the standout is the twisting and uplifting ‘PanAmericana’.

Elsewhere the group show off their extensive session musician chops, as they bring out long time indie-Americana songstress (and John Cale collaborator) Pieta Brown and madcap Mexican electronic guru Camilo Lara.

There’s one final figure that looms large over the proceedings however.

On the day that Donald Trump is inaugurated in Washington, it would be hard for America’s 45th president not to cast a long shadow over a show such as this that thrives on cross cultural pollination.

Indeed his attacks on immigrants and Mexican’s draws frequent comment from the guests, as they line up to rebuke his bigotry and issue pleas for tolerance.

Though Lara gets one of the biggest cheers of the night declaring, “I’m proud to be Mexican, I’m glad Donald Trump building a wall. We don’t want Trump supporters in Mexico.”

If there’s one criticism of the show it’s that despite the number of musicians on stage, Calexico are not a band who are typically found in such grand surroundings and at times they struggle to marshal an extensive seated crowd to get involved,

Exhortations to clap and dance tend to peter out and while the older audience cheer for impressive covers like Gaby Moreno’s take on Ry Cooder’s ‘Across the Borderline’ or an exquisite version of Woody Guthrie’s stirring ‘Deportees’, they seem more puzzled by the likes of Lara’s soundclash.

Nonetheless one can’t fail to be impressed by the quality of musicianship on show, the sensitivity towards different styles and perspectives and the generous spirit that pervades the evening.

As a one off showcase of musical styles that are oft neglected on this side of the Atlantic, Calexico are masters of their craft.

Words: Max Sefton

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