Photos by Johannes Leszinski
Where are you from? Where are you going?
Amager Bio on a drizzly Tuesday. A diminutive blonde woman plays a lap steel guitar on a stage that surrounds her in shadow. Seated and dressed in white, she arches over the instrument in her lap, running the slide over the strings with one hand while she plucks them with the other. Her wispy tremolos are accompanied by a nylon-string acoustic guitar, the maraca rhythms of a drum played with brushes, and a cello.
Maggie Björklund doesn’t introduce herself until the last song of the supporting set, after someone in the audience calls out for the name of her band. Earlier, before a song she described as “film musik,” she had encouraged us to substitute our own narrative, as the film had yet to be made. It isn’t entirely fair. Björklund’s music conjures images of desert vistas at dusk where the mind can go wandering. It’s airy and expansive, but there’s little to draw your attention. Sometimes when the band crescendos toward a climax, you wish the lap steal would snag like a pinched nerve. But no—Björklund’s resigned to a mood. It’s music by the bonfire. At least it’s warm.
Calexico’s set opens with “Cumbia de Donde”, a track off their new album Edge of the Sun where the Latin reference points are front and center, and that seems to be the point. “I’m not from here/ I’m not from there,” sings Joey Burns in a call-and-response interplay with trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela and guitarist Jario Zavala (“De dondé eres?/ A dondé vas?”). It’s instantly infectious, and it helps that the capacity-crowd is super responsive. Syncopated rhythms get your shoulders popping on the off-beat as you join in the refrain: “I’m in the moment and I’m on my way/ I’m on my way.”
After nearly 20 years, Burns and drummer John Convertino remain the driving force of Calexico, and much of their success is credited to a wholehearted embrace of the collaborative spirit. Though neither Sam Beam nor Neko Case are present to sing their respective parts on “Bullets & Rocks” and “Tapping on the Line”, you’d think the touring band was comprised of other contemporary heroes of alternative country you just hadn’t heard of.
Valenzuela and Zavala in particular are standouts. Zavala, a powerful axman, is in kind blessed with natural charisma. During the elegiac “Maybe on Monday”, a song about a departed love, he manages to whip the crowd in whoops and cheers with a searing solo on baritone guitar, totally earning the applause break and mean mugging all the while. Valenzuela is a less showy performer, who gets his moment with a beautiful solo vocal performance of “Inspiracion”, a song he wrote for 2008’s Carried to Dust.
Calexico’s always had a nack for capturing a sense of place. Even when they’re paying tribute to other bands from other eras, with faithful covers of Love’s “Alone Again Or”, R.E.M.’s “The One I Love”, and The Minutemen’s “Corona”, their set is charged by an ambiance that transports you. As with their namesake, Calexico’s music is a port of entry to the sounds and themes of the American Southwest, where the steady warble of slide guitar and horns hold your soul in the borderlands of darkness and light. Toward the end of the set, on “Not Even Stevie Nicks”, Burns takes us “into the blue, into the blue”. The song then builds magnificently into a familiar tune—Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart”. Though they may have “the wound that the sun won’t ever heal”, I’ll always “Follow the River” when Calexico’s in town.