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Calexico and Iron & Wine / Lisa O’Neill – Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 20/11/2019

It feels even more special to be catching Calexico and Iron & Wine this evening given that earlier in the day the nominees for next year’s Grammy Awards were announced and they appeared in not one but two individual categories. To have your musical achievements recognised in such a way is an undoubted honour for these guys and the six musicians who comprise this collective proceed to celebrate in the best way possible by giving us a musical night to remember.

Tucson’s Calexico first joined creative forces with their fellow American Sam Beam (better known by his stage and recording name of Iron & Wine) some 14 years ago on the 7-track EP, In The Reins. Due to their regularly conflicting schedules it has taken them all that time to properly reconvene, but earlier this year they released their first joint full-length album Years to Burn. And it is that record which has been the catalyst for the current tour, one that started way back in July at the Super Bock Super Rock festival in Portugal, has since crisscrossed its way back and forth across central and eastern Europe and will finally end in four days time in Bexhill-on-Sea on the south coast of England.

One of the great beauties of this tour is that Calexico and Iron & Wine have each night changed both the complexion of the setlist and the order in which the songs have been played. Here they open with ‘Follow the Water’, one of a number of songs drawn from their new album. When I first caught the tour in Budapest last week they started with ‘Dead Man’s Will’, which will turn out be their encore this evening.

Between these two points the six men – Beam, Calexico mainstays Joey Burns and John Convertino on their respective guitar and drums, plus fellow band members, trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela, Robert Burger on keyboards and bassist Sebastian Steinberg – produce a unified sound that is as complex as it is ambitious and beautiful and is spread across a remarkable range of songs both old and new plus a few that are borrowed too. It is a sound that demonstrates just how far Iron & Wine has travelled creatively since I first saw him about 16 or 17 years ago as a nascent indie-folk artist sharing a Sub Pop Records bill with, amongst others, Rosie Thomas, at the now sadly defunct New Roscoe pub in Leeds. It also proves, if any such proof were really needed, that Calexico are no longer just those kings of indie-mariachi.

‘Red Dust’ – four songs in and radically reworked from the version that appears on In The Reins – is the perfect example of their individual and collective sonic development. It has now become a long, sprawling stretch of deserted psychedelic blues, one that features an extended upright bass solo and which would not have been entirely out of place on one of those many Dick’s Picks’ Grateful Dead live recordings.

The ensuing ‘I Lost It’ is imbued with muscular power and does Lucinda Williams’ original supreme justice. ‘Father Mountain’ confirms just why it should have been selected as a nominee for Best American Roots Performance at next January’s Grammy Awards ceremony. And ‘Flores Y Tamales’ from Calexico’s ninth studio album, last year’s The Thread That Keeps Us and complete with some delightful accordion play from Robert Burger, shows that the band have not completely turned their back on Tejano music.

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Sam Beam struggles to hear a man shouting from the crowd

There then follows what has become a regular feature of this tour whereby Sam Beam and Joey Burns each choose an Iron & Wine and Calexico tune for the other to play. Tonight the selections are ‘Naked As We Came’ and ‘Bisbee Blues’. But this part of the show is almost temporarily derailed when an elderly chap sat a couple of rows in front of me in the stalls (only six rows from the front, it should be said) shouts out that he cannot hear. Quite why it has taken him more than an hour into this performance to make such an observation is anyone’s guess, but both Beam and Burns deal with the unwelcome interruption with good grace and some gentle humour.

Lisa O’Neill – the support act on all of the UK dates on this tour – returns to the stage to join Beam and Burns for a charming reading of The Everly Brothers‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’. Earlier, the musician and songwriter from Cavan in Ireland captivated us with half a dozen songs including exquisite interpretations of Ivor Cutler’s delightfully eccentric ‘Squeeze Bees’ and Nina Simone’s powerful, politically-charged ‘Four Women’, as well as her own ‘Rock The Machine’, which was inspired by the loss of dockers’ jobs to mechanisation in the Dublin of the ‘60s. Like Simone before her, O’Neill rightly rails against discrimination and social injustice in its many and varied forms. Her presence here in the Bridgewater Hall adds greatly to the overall impact of a tremendous evening.

The tour continues at Warwick Arts Centre in Coventry tonight before heading to London and the capital’s Royal Festival Hall on the 23rd of November and finally concluding the following evening at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.

Photos: Simon Godley

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