Spirited rock, fastidious alt-folk make uneasy match

Boston Globe, December 10, 2005

Calexico is one of America’s best rock bands, a crew out of Tucson that makes exuberant, textured music steeped in the border sensibility yet never derivative. Iron & Wine is Sam Beam, an alt- folk hero with hushed voice and husky beard whose songs straddle the line between haunting and twee. The EP they recently cut together, “In the Reins,” has garnered a sort of ginger praise, with fans of one act not quite sure what to make of the other. Their performance Wednesday at Avalon did little to resolve this discomfort.

Instead, it showcased an uneven exchange. Calexico’s six members, multi-instrumentalists all, supplied most of the labor and all of the fun. Beam provided his voice, soft compared to the rough, energetic vocals of Calexico’s Joey Burns, and the bulk of a sold- out yet listless crowd heavy on the sensitive-male demographic. The joint set was a ramshackle affair, at its best when Calexico’s trumpets and pedal steel dominated, or when Mexican guest Salvador Duran sang in Spanish on “He Lays in the Reins.”

Earlier in the drawn-out evening, each act performed an individual set. Calexico’s was superb, starting with the instrumental “Minas de Cobre,” with its thrilling trumpet accents, and proceeding through mariachi grooves, hard guitar-driven covers, and the big-sky rock of “The Crystal Frontier” to end on the bilingual swinger “Guero Latino.” The musicianship was top-notch, with Paul Niehaus on pedal steel particularly stirring.

Duran then offered a short solo set of norteno songs in the manner of a Sonora frontier crooner, accompanying himself on harmonica and guitar to exhilarating effect. Some in the crowd showed signs of life at this point; others lapsed into conversation. But when Beam came on, acoustic guitar in hand, hushing noises fused from all sides to enforce the appropriate stillness. “You’re all so well behaved,” he commented midway through his recital of vaguely rural-themed songs that got lost in their own meticulous detail.

The night’s opening act was Tim Fite, a singer-songwriter from Brooklyn with a distinctly Pee Wee Herman energy, who wriggled about in a white shirt and necktie to sounds from a laptop against a video background of childlike drawings. His set, which leaned toward the puerile, was too brief to establish if he is truly weird or just trying to be.