A 200-odd capacity theatre in a small town Community Centre is not exactly the place I’d expect to see an international touring band, especially one as renowned as Tuscon, Arizona outfit Calexico. Their blend of indie rock, folk, country, mariachi and continent-crossing Latin American influences span some 20 years of acclaimed albums and globe encompassing tours. Granted, this is Byron Bay we’re talking about, a town with a not to be overlooked musical heritage of its own. Yet even so, for this Sydney reviewer, who enjoys the privilege of a considerable roster of overseas musicians passing through her hometown, the combination of ‘famous, important’ band and ‘tiny, intimate’ venue is something of a novel experience.
The Byron Theatre puts on a diverse array of productions and can be configured to accommodate an eclectic range of artistic performances. Tonight, there’s tiered seating and no stage at all – no lofty divide between audience and band members.
While Calexico’s sound in such a pocket-sized venue lacks some of the swirling expansiveness of sets they’ve played in grander venues, like the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, the show certainly doesn’t suffer in terms of acoustics. In fact, the sound in the Byron Theatre is impeccable, with just the right proportions for the human voice to carry across the room with its natural warmth and raw distinctiveness intact.
The band open with Coyoacan, a sweeping, multi-part instrumental, inspired by their time in Mexico City. With seven players on stage, the room is engulfed in an enveloping, exotic soundscape, and we’re immediately transported to colourful, historic streets of the famously artistic Coyoacan district. At several points throughout the show, the songs are so evocative, the pristine acoustics so immersive, I honestly forget where I am for brief moments during the set.
Two things bring me back to earth. The eruptions of applause from the small but enormously appreciative audience, and lead singer Joey Burns’ captivating grin. I have never seen anyone who looks as totally stoked to be on stage as Joey Burns. He’s the consummate band leader, someone who takes great delight in every moment playing with such effortless cohesion with musicians of the Calexico collective’s calibre, and if his mind ever wanders elsewhere for second, his on-stage expressions betray nothing. He is an absolute joy to watch. If the audience is loving the show half as much as he is, we’re doing good.
Tonight’s show feels tailor made for the space, and for the local music lovers of Byron Bay, who it seems the band have gotten to know over several sojourns there over the years. Lengthier epics that are regular additions to Calexico’s setlist are trimmed down or omitted, and the set leans more towards the more upbeat, Latin-flavoured cuts from their multifarious catalogue.
Cumbia de Donde, a track from the latest album comes early in the set, and already several audience members (some already liberated of their footwear) are dancing in the aisles or up-front just few metres from the band. As a Sydney-sider, with our sometimes too cool for school audiences, this is not something I’m necessarily used to seeing in a relatively formal theatre space, especially two songs into the set. The band is visibly delighted.
Fitting in with the largely Latin-themed setlist tonight, long-time Calexico trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela gets two songs penned by him, Inspiracion and No Te Vayas thrown into the mix, his voice carrying with a strength missing from the recorded versions, interspersed with long, brooding trumpet solos that the audience responds to with audible ‘wows’.
The trumpets are true stars tonight, and during the opening strains of Minas de Cobre, both horn players abruptly stroll off the stage and start making their way up the stairs to the left and right rear doors. When the mariachi-flavoured trumpet riff kicks in, the players point their instruments into the centre of the room, and boom, stereo trumpets! Well played, boys.
The setlist is mostly cuts from the latest album, Edge of the Sun, and classic crowd favourites, with Soledad a big, brassy take on an old Colombian cumbia, being the only real surprise. Jairo Zavala lets up his muscular lead guitar playing for a few brief moments to take lead vocals on this one. On this tour, they’ve been joined by bass player Scott Colberg, who adds a sinuous jazz solo on double bass to the rousing Stray. But its founding member and drummer John Convertino, comfortably perched in the back, who’s playing captivates most – extraordinarily inventive yet beautifully restrained, his playing as deft and elegant and mesmerising to watch as ever.
The band cap off the evening with Crystal Frontier and most of the audience filling up every available free space to dance and fist pump to the trumpet bits, before the loudest demand for an encore I’ve ever heard from a crowd of 200. We’re treated to Guero Canelo, which is extended out with singalong grabs from Manu Chao’s Deseparacido and Buena Vista Social Club’s Candela, before the band bows out to rapturous applause.
When it’s all over, my urge to dance is at its peak. It feels short (it actually was, slightly) for a Calexico show, with all its pace and energy, but more exciting, more engrossing, and more fun than any single show I’ve seen for awhile. And for that, I have both the band to thank, and the music lovers of Byron Bay. So, muchas gracias, mis amigos de Byron Bay, for showing this city slicker how it’s done.