In 2008, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was given the chance to choose the "wake- up" music to roust her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, and the rest of the crew slumbering above Earth aboard the Discovery mission.
The song she chose, "Crystal Frontier," had several layers of significance. First, it's a loud, fast-track that's well-suited to the task. Also, it's by Calexico, a band hailing from her hometown of Tucson. Not only is Calexico one of Giffords' favorite acts, they'd played campaign events on her behalf.
So Giffords picked the song and, when NPR wanted a Tucsonian to offer a brief comment on the senseless spree shooting that's left Giffords in critical condition, they turned to singer Joey Burns. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone better suited to the task of representing Tucson than the frontman of the genre-bending Americana act.
Calexico will play at Corona Ranch in Laveen on Friday, February 4. It's a special event -- not only is the atmospheric rodeo grounds and party center a unique place for a show, but the concert coincides with the Alliance of Independent Media Stores convention, probably the largest congregation of record store geeks assembled during the entire year.
To entertain one of the toughest crowds he'll ever see, Burns has cooked up a few surprising covers, though he won't offer any clues beyond that. Moreover, he's hoping it'll be a step in healing -- emotions and images.
"There was talk of it not being in Phoenix for several reasons, and now with this, you can only imagine some people might be even more apprehensive," Burns says. "But I think us showing our face... and holding this really special concert in this really incredible place, Corona Ranch, I think it's going to help in that whole process of people getting a bigger picture."
Here's what else Burns had to say about Tucson, his connection to Giffords, and his upcoming show in Phoenix.
While you're reading, you can stream the song Giffords chose to wake up her husband by clicking play below.
Martin Cizmar: What's it like to be a spokesman for your town in a situation like this? Obviously when places like NPR were looking for someone to talk to -- a Tucsonian -- they went you,
Joey Burns: There are a lot of great people in this town that are speaking out. Just watching the news last night, Savannah Guthrie, who was born and raised here, who's a television reporter for NBC -- I saw her piece and it was great. She was talking to the night host on the television news here about how great this place is and how much she loves it. And all the people I've heard speaking about Tucson, especially the family members of the people involved, still find Tucson a remarkable place. Not only it's diversity, but the general feeling here -- the friendliness, openness -- this place still remains a very positive place, an inspirational place.
MC: Tucson is a big town but it's also kind of a small town. What's it like having a spotlight like this on it? Are people getting it right, or do you think they're not getting it right?
JB: I think the people who've made comments about the town itself and the people are spot on. It is a very diverse place, and there are a lot of different kinds people here who have different beliefs and come from different backgrounds, and that's what makes it so special. And so I think people are getting it.... Today is a very special day, as I'm sure you know, President Obama and his wife, the first lady, Michelle Obama are coming here to take part in a memorial. And I'm hoping to be there in person or to be nearby to take part in that healing process, and I'm also going to be offering my services for a number of memorials throughout the week, and the future. So, on one hand I'm incredibly sad and devastated by the tragedy, and how shocking and horrible it's been. But I'm also blown away by how amazingly people are rallying their spirits despite the loss and helping others. That, to me, shows the true spirit of a town like this?
MC: Do you have a song that you feel is appropriate -- when you said you'll be offering your services -- is there something you have to share with people that you think will mean something to them?
JB: There's a lot of songs -- I was thinking about this one song. The night it happened there was this event at the Rialto, a very spontaneous thing, and I didn't want to get up on stage, I didn't have anything I needed to share, and I just felt it best just to be there and support... but one song that came to mind is a song from 2003 from the album Feast of Wire called "Woven Birds," which is written from the perspective of watching a place that's gone through a horrible tragedy. And after that song a number of people have come up to me and said how much that song's meant to them in times of loss and sadness.
MC: How did you feel when you heard one of your songs was going to be played on the space shuttle? To me that says 'Tucson' more than anything -- that Tucson has a congresswoman who likes Calexico and is married to an astronaut -- that seems very unique and special to me.
JB: We were all pretty surprised and really honored that Gabrielle would ask us to pick one of our own songs. We'd gradually heard that she was a fan, we'd been playing for quite a few years, but she'd never really came up. It's not like she was trying to make this opportunity. She's just a fan of a lot of bands, whether they're national acts touring through Tucson or local bands. And it was Charlie Levy of Stateside Presents who really made the connection he was like 'Wow, if you like this band, and they're great guys, and I know they like what you do, let's try to organize an event.' So it was a series of connections thanks to Charlie Levy that really brought us all together to try to help the community. And it's been great. We've helped out a number of years, in prior elections, and in this most recent one. So she contacted us and was kind of like 'hey, what do you think, what song would you recommend?' I was so excited -- I was like 'oh, my gosh, a wake-up call, maybe something that would really wake them up' -- I wanted something that would really wake them up, not a subtle song. So I was thinking a song with trumpets, and that really speaks the essence of Tucson, that blend of genres and cultural influences, that really speaks the history of the place... So I thought 'Crystal Frontier, that'd be a great song!' And, sure enough, she sent it up.
MC: Speaking of Charlie, he's done an amazing job of booking you at venues around Phoenix. This one coming up at Corona Ranch -- I was just at a wedding there, it's a beautiful spot, I was thinking 'man this is a cool place, this would be a great place to see a concert' and of course Charlie is two steps ahead of anyone.
JB: Both Charlie and Kimber Lanning from Stinkweeds have raved about Corona Ranch. They're both kind of pathfinders for Arizona... Like that Heritage Square pavilion show, that was a great show, a lot of people enjoyed it and it brought a lot of different people together... Now, in light of the tragedy that occurred this past weekend, I think Arizona needs these kind of shows. We're going to have Mariachi Passion, which is an all-female mariachi group, and we're going to have Sergio Mendoza and his orchestra featuring Salvador Duran, then Calexico is going to play, and when we do these local shows Sergio and Salvador and a lot of members of his orchestra come up and back us up... I think it's going to be very special, it's going to ooze atmosphere and everything that we love bout this place.
MC: Is it going to be weird on tour -- your music has such a sense of place that people definitely get a picture of Tucson listening to it -- but at the same time now, when you go to Europe or Back East, there are going to be all those other images that people have of this place?
JB: No. I think that people who know the band, they're going to see the reason why, when people comment about the soulfulness of this place, they're going to see the connection. It'd be one thing if we played a different kind of music, but the music that we've created over the years, I think it kind of taps into the essence of the Sonoran desert, and why this is a special place. It's all about that air. It's about these influences that come from different cultures here. Calexico has been that melting point -- the name even reflects that, that's why we chose the name from the town on the border of California and Mexico, because it kind of embodied the direction we're going. So I think, when people, especially people from Europe who know us, I'm sure they're shocked that the events that happened this weekend occurred in the same town where we're from, because it's the polar opposite.
MC: How do you reconcile that -- obviously this is something that's from there, who's mom works basically as a park ranger in that town -- how do you reconcile that?
JB: You reach out. You have to do your mourning, you have to take your own time to grieve, but you have to then reach out. Not just going to the same places with the same people, but really trying to help out others... There's a lot of ground to cover here... I just feel you need to get out there and embrace -- all people, all groups. And it's a tough one. I'm walking down the street now, and I've got all kinds of different feelings, but you have to walk the same way Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords is right now. You're fearless and you lead with your heart. You don't succumb to fear or doubt.