I’m always amazed when I stumble upon some corner of music that I haven’t looked into before. In the last week I started looking into some related bands. There is a regional music scene similar to Athens, GA in the late 80’s and like the Post Rock scene surrounding Thrill Jockey Records in Chicago today in Tucson, AZ. In similar fashion to Athens, it has a movie documenting it.
I had heard some music from Calexico. I had sort of written them off as being kind of a hispanic Post-Rock group and not really paid attention to them. I had a chance to hear the Calexico + Iron and Wine collaboration in In the Reins which was very good. Coming in March is the new release from Calexico called Garden Ruin. It seems that Calexico has veered from its mariachi roots and produced an album that stands on its own merits. I think that maybe they have learned something from the Iron and Wine.
Once I heard Garden Ruin, I started looking a bit closer to the roots of Calexico. Calexico is primarily John Convertino and Joey Burns. They were both in Giant Sand with Howe Gelb. Giant Sand have a pretty extensive history. Howe (pronouced “How”) Gelb moved to Tucson with his family after a flood at their home in Pennsylvania. He formed the band Giant Sandworm in the 70’s. They hung together until 1980 or so, when Howe started firing members. By the time he was signed to Enigma records it was just him and a drummer and he dropped the “worm” part of their name. At this point he moved from what was considered largely a punk outfit to being something else. I think that Giant Sand occupies the dry desert music space as the Meat Puppets– kind of rock and kind of western. (note: this perspective of music seems to be called “New West” and includes Wilco/Sun Volt, and Ryan Adams) Convertino and Burns are still considered members of Giant Sand, although it seems that Calexico is their primary focus. The last Giant Sand record on Thrill Jockey, Its All Over… The Map doesn’t include them. Howe Gelb has been compared to Neil Young in his sound and his method of re-inventing himself. His last album on Thrill Jockey under the project/album name of Arizona Amp and Alternator definately shows this. Howe has a new album coming up that he recorded with a gospel choir he met on tour last year. This album called ‘Sno Angel Like You is due next month. He will tour for this album, but won’t be bringing the choir with him.
Also related to Calexico and Giant Sand/Howe Gelb is the late Rainer Ptacek. Rainer played slide guitar in Giant Sand and a number of other projects with Howe. He also has a couple of solo releases. He passed away in 1997 of brain cancer. A significant loss in this regional scene.
While I was doing my research on these bands, I found out that there is an independent movie that is completed and doing the run of film festivals called “High and Dry: Where The Desert Meets Rock and Roll” that is about the burgeoning music scene in Tucson. This movie, as you might imagine, includes a lot of footage from Calexico, Big Sand and Howe Gelb, as well as Rainer. Evidently, there is a trailer on the October issue of Paste Magazine. I’ll have to dig that out.
The guy who seems to be keeping the flame for this scene is a DJ named Jim Blackwood who is considered the archivist for both Calexico and Big Sand. He has been posting stuff to Archive.org and a number of the bittorrent sites. I managed to snag a torrent off of dimeadozen which was a radio show from the community station he works for, KXCI, which includes a bunch of archive stuff from Gelb, Rainer, Giant Sand, OP8 (a side project with Giant Sand and Lisa Germano), Calexico, and an instrumental spinoff called “The Friends of Dean Martin (today called “The Friends of Dean Martinez”).
I should also point out that Giant Sand and Calexico are related to Neko Case and are part of the band that backs her up on her new album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood which was recorded in Tucson in the studio that Calexico and Howe Gelb frequents. Neko is kind of an institution in her own rite between her solo career and her side job in The New Pornographers.
So, it looks like I’ll be listing to this scene for a while. We have the new Calexico album, a new Howe Gelb album and the new Neko Case album all getting attention in my rotations. Since Calexico and Gelb allow taping I’ll be able to do some listening of the live shows. Calexico are on tour in Europe at the moment. I’m hoping/assuming they will kick off a US tour after the new album comes out on the 11th of March. I’d like to try to get out to see them.