Concert Review

Calexico Classy at Heritage Square Concert

There's one word that describes the Calexico concert at Heritage Square last night: Classy. From the tastefully-appointed stage, to the home-made tamales and high-end beer (Tecate and Four Peaks products only; no Bud) to the gorgeous textures of the band's unique blend of Western and Tejano music and indie rock, it was a show that felt more like the best wedding reception you've ever been to than a typical Phoenix rock concert.

Tucson's Calexico is among the most respected indie acts in the state, six albums and 12 years in to a career that took off after the band's singer Joey Burns and drummer John Convertino split from Howe Gelb's Giant Sand. They're beloved nationwide, but rarely play here in Phoenix, so this was a special event. It was treated that way by the promoters, Stateside Presents and restaurateur Chris Bianco, proprietor of the famous pizzeria next to the brown wood structure (imagine a giant carport, attached to a house on one side) that housed the concert. From the candles at the merch and concession booths to the beautiful silly-string looking textile hanging behind the stage, it was as stylish a setting for a large outdoor event as you'll find in this town.

The opening band, Sergio Mendoza y La Orkesta, did a lot to set the tone. Fronted by two long-time Calexico contributors, they're a classic Latin Big Band that had the crowd moving from start to finish. "Stylish" is too weak a word to describe their act, which is possibly the most marketable show I've seen from an Arizona band. Starting just after 8, they played through a nice selection of mambos and updated Mariachi music without falling in to any cliched "Besame Mucho" moments. The band is brand new, and still finding their legs (their MySpace still has only a single song, which doesn't sound like they did live) but I wouldn't be surprised to see NPR listeners lining up to buy $50 tickets to see them in a year or so. They're a physically attractive version of Buena Vista Social Club with a wardrobe out of Godfather II, and they felt fresh and exotic even in Phoenix, let alone Nueva York. If you're a fan of World and Big Band music, I would honestly suggest a trip to Flagstaff this coming Saturday to see them at the soon-to-be-closed Orpheum.

After that, well, Calexico more or less felt like a cherry on top. Backed by a full horn section, a mandolin and pedal steel, they're America took on the same rich textures their records have. Their set had a nice arc, topping out with a "Writer's Minor Holiday," "The News About William" and "Two Silver Trees."

"It's such a beautiful night here, goodness gracious," said Burns. I'd like to tell the Tucson boy it's always like this on Saturday nights in April in Phoenix but, sadly, this was an extra-special night. Maybe if he stopped by more often...

Critic's Notebook:

Last Night: Calexico and Sergio Mendoza y La Orkesta at Heritage Square.

Better Than: Tempe Music Fest. Sorry guys, I was at both (sort of) and I have to give the nod to Calexico.

Personal Bias: Slightly Anti-Tucson. After a year and a half living in the Valley, I finally made a trip to Arizona's second city last weekend. The mountains are bigger than here and Hotel Congress is awesome, but I prefer Flagstaff for a getaway.

Random Detail: The vegetarian tamales sold out, which amazes and disappoints me. Yeah, I'm a gringo, but having researched the matter extensively for a story I did a few years back, I have to say I think he idea of a "vegetarian tamale" is incredibly odd, and contrary to everything this pre-Colombian dish is all about. Aztec king Moctezuma is rolling over in his grave. 

Further Listening: Did I mention anything about Sergio Mendoza y La Orkesta?

By the Way: Chris Bianco deserves a lot of credit for this. Even if I like my pizza a little more promptly than he can provide it, that guy is doing some great things for downtown Phoenix.

One More Thing: What's next at Heritage Square, guys? This was a rousing success, I can't wait to see the follow ups.
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Martin Cizmar
Contact: Martin Cizmar