Nothing is better to launch a sold-out show than a band like Calexico and their drinking, partying, Latin-infused music. And nothing is better to recover from that party than the delicious downer of Iron and Wine.
Named for an area of California bordering Mexico, Calexico opened with an instrumental number that set the tone for the evening—at least for their half of it. Calexico’s authentic, Latin-inspired music translated well live and was good for the party atmosphere at St. Louis’ Mississippi Nights. The band’s members include two percussionists, two guitarists, bass, keyboard, trumpet, trombone—thus creating a lot of instrumental shuffling that included accompaniment by flamenco musician Salvador Duran for added authenticity.
Throughout Calexico’s set, it was the instrumentals that sounded the best. The songs with vocals and the verse/chorus/verse formula strayed from the atmospheric Latin feel to almost Top-40 sounding tunes at times, but their fantastic instrumental breaks always brought the listener back. Calexico’s best song, “Guerro Canelo,” had everyone dancing and shouting along. And their Maynard Ferguson-sounding high-ranged trumpet solos ran the gamut: dabbling in jazz pieces and even including the theme from Rocky.
Next up was Salvador Duran for a short solo set. In Spanish traditional flamenco strumming patterns, Duran’s vocals were spastic and strange, almost like a Spanish Captain Beefheart.
But the reason for the sold-out crowd was indie-favorite, Iron and Wine. When the band took the stage, the venue made the long jump from the perpetually moving instrumentals to the completely different feel of mellow, lyric-driven songs that move you on a whisper and a couplet. The surroundings became very quiet, with the audience shhhhh-ing each other throughout the set. Iron and Wine’s sedating music was clearly meant for a more intimate atmosphere than the sold-out venue could provide, and it was a jolt to the system, moving from the pumped-up Calexico and into tunes that speak to the dark, slower notes of depression.
Despite the immense conflict of musical styles, both bands were complementary in talent and equally appreciated by the audience. Iron and Wine’s singer/songwriter/brainchild, Sam Beam, had the task of having to project over his large live ensemble. Surprisingly, he actually has a very good singing voice and pulled it off even better than Calexico’s frontman. The band played all the songs off their EP, In the Reins [Overcoat Recordings].
Perhaps the greatest moment of the evening was the collaboration between both bands. The many instruments across both band’s sets had a good mix and levels, and did not sound at all muddled or competing. It was a feeling of privilege to witness these two groups together. Even while they are separately moving in such different ways, they found a good middle ground to bring out each other’s strong points. After some time away from the show, it could be said that the match of Calexico and Iron and Wine make a weird kind of sense: Calexico adds a physical life to songs with a strong sense of rhythm and overall feel; while Iron and Wine adds the higher structure, insight, and voice of the spiritual.
Photo from Iron and Wine's website, 2005 Bonnaroo festival