Santa Barbara is a weird little town for live music. There are only a handful of venues for gigs: a couple of big places and a smattering of bars, of which Soho is one. Most bands that tour in California don't stop in this little beach town on their way from Los Angeles to San Francisco, so a visit by a well-known band, even if just by indie standards, is pretty exciting. And with such little live music, Santa Barbara residents go to any show by a band whose name they recognize, even if they've never heard the music.
But the members of Calexico seemed happy to come by for their December 7 show at Soho: Singer/guitarist Joey Burns couldn't stop going on about how this was the band's first time in Santa Barbara and how much the members loved it and could we please invite them back to play the Old Spanish Days fiesta? With the band's brand of border-bending alt-rock/alt-mariachi, Calexico would be very welcome, indeed.
Calexico's set was solid and fun, a fabulous mix of guitar, pedal steel, trumpets (two, and it's not even a ska band), accordion, and myriad other instruments. It was clear that each member is a competent multi-instrumentalist, but the set didn't really get cooking until they threw some covers out to us (a testament that many in the crowd were there to see live music more than to see Calexico specifically), and their faithful, rollicking rendition of Love's "Alone Again Or" riled up a sea of hands and hips. Calexico owes at least a bit of its sound to Love's legacy, with the mariachi trumpet lines that crop up in many of the band's songs.
Peppered with references to Sam Peckinpah, Chicano writer Luis Alberto Urrea and Stevie Nicks, Calexico's set was at once cerebral and politically informed (the band members are quite passionate about border issues), yet jocular enough so that the sparkling music wasn't dulled by heavy handedness. They seem to realize that being politically aware and having soul are not mutually exclusive.