There are certain collaborations that are just meant to be: Tom Petty/Stevie Nicks, Queen/David Bowie and perhaps some that aren’t (ie Metallica/Lou Reed). Place Calexico and Iron & Wine in the former.
It’s been 14 years since the Tucson based band led by Joey Burns and John Convertino joined forces with a then-burgeoning Sam Beam of Iron and Wine for 2005’s warm and rustic In The Reins EP. While Calexico has remained on a steady trajectory, Iron & Wine has vaulted to the upper echelon of indie-folk reserved for the Bon Ivers, Andrew Birds and Fleet Foxes.
Come 2019, both bands have returned where they left off with this year’s long-awaited full-length collaboration Years to Burn. While In the Reins has made an enduring impression, Years to Burn is the fully realized LP version of this meeting of words and sound. The artists entered the Nashville studio with noted producer Matt Ross-Spang at the helm. The results were well worth the wait, with many placing it on year-end best-ofs.
The U.S, portion of the tour in support of Years kicked off for a sold-out performance at Phoenix’s historic and charming Orpheum Theatre on August 16th. What’s interesting to note from the get-go is that this two-band touring effort features a democratic split of both lineup and song choice. Along with Convertino and Burns, Team Calexico featured trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela, while the I & W side was rounded out by frequent Beam cohorts Robe Burger (Tin Hat Trio) on keys and accordion and bassist Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing, Fionna Apple).
“I want to say this is one of my favorite shows of the tour- it’s the first one,” said a deadpanned Burns midway through the show. The close to two-hour performance was a colored run through the In The Reins and Years To Burn material with plenty of salty banter between Burns and Beam.
“Sam has selected some Calexico songs for us to do, and I’ve selected some Iron & Wine songs, commented Burns a third of the way through. “Sam chose the happy songs and I chose sad songs.”
Try and talk about Calexico and not use the term “desert,” just try. With the first show of their U.S. tour in their home state, not to mention the sepia tone stage lightning and mariachi flavored sounds emitting from Valenzuela, the sand and cactus imagery is difficult to ignore. With Convertino’s brush strokes drumming alongside Beam’s hush and tender vocals, the songs play out as a roadmap of the southwest- think Vince Gilligan score minus the noir crime. Beam, who would look completely unrecognizable without his frizzy long beard, still plays the part of the modern-day Cat Stevens.
‘Father the Mountain” the album’s lone single rang listeners ears with its valiant vocals and steady musical underbelly that is part western part freak-folk nugget. “Follow the Water” range with touching epiphany “Two kids climbed on a roller coaster car Got rattled on the track/ Up and down, around and back” with a pacifying grace. “History of Lovers” perhaps the most recognized original of the evening, blossomed with a mix of folk and its swinging horn section. The expansive “The Bitter Suite” with its three respective sections created various crescendos of sound that begin hypnotic then venture into illuminating orchestral sections that weave through its adventurous movements.
The musical MVP of the night was Burger whose textures and melodies on both keys and the accordion brought a visceral and emotive component to the folky bones of the songs. While many in the crowd started filing out at the hour and a half mark, it was more to get out of the tight confines of the theater and grab some liquid relief on the 110ish August Phoenix night. It’s been 14 years of anticipation for the return of this meant to be collaboration, and Friday night in Phoenix proved the live presentation is as exceptional as the recording.