Calexico / Yo La Tengo–Live @ Buckhead Theatre

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This double bill was a no-brainer, with two bands I like appearing in a venue that I hadn’t visited before.  Formerly The Roxy, I had been curious to see this venue after what had been reported as a fine upgrade, significantly adding to Atlanta’s desirable concert spots. 

I’ll get to the music, but in working our way to the show, I learned that I haven’t lived as others have lived.  There are numerous bars in this area, just off the main thoroughfare, that I hadn’t seen before.  There’s a lot of history with these bars, regardless of name changes over the years.

The Pool Hall, Park Bench Pub, Churchill’s English Pub, Stout Irish Pub, Czar Ice Bar, Red Door Tavern, Five Paces Inn... the list goes on.  As do the stories of my concert buddy and his long time friend from “the younger days” through the newer ones.IMG_3324

And so it was that we blitzed Park Bench Pub (no visible draught beer, goodbye),  Churchill’s English Pub (Thanks for the omnipresent Sweetwater, but smoking really isn’t necessary anymore), and Stout Irish Bar (Sierra Nevada also gets around).  And so did my companions in years gone by.  Oh, they don’t get around much anymore, other than to wake early in the morning and shuttle their kids around the city.  Still... legendary tales, indeed.

Thus arriving at the Buckhead Theatre mere minutes after the 8:30 post, Calexico was already into their first song.  The BT has standing room on the auditorium floor and seating in the balcony, though they will place chairs on the floor for certain events.  Strangely, the floor in front the stage is relatively flat, leaving me wondering, not for the first time, why all those 5’5” girls bother going to concerts.  All they see are the backs of taller guys in front of them.  But, who am I to judge?  The walkway to one side and the rear are sloped, offering better sight lines in my opinion.  The view of the stage is very important for any venue.

I’m not particularly choosey regarding how plush a venue is, and this certainly shows very well.  I look for several other features however.

1) Acoustics.  Not perfect here, but pretty darn good.  The basic test is whether you can make out the lyrics to songs you know.  I, eh, didn’t know the lyrics to any songs, but I could still make out the majority of the words.  So acoustics get an A.  Well, A- actually, because I’ve heard better.  I’ve also heard far worse and would have no reservations about seeing another show here.

2) Stage lighting.  Well, they have it.  It’s not like they have to suspend a different rig for each show, but the house lights are a basic, mundane set.  They don’t detract from a show, but don’t add a visual texture or mood either.  Variety Playhouse still reigns over all comers in Atlanta in that regard.

3) Decent beverage selection and prices.  Middle of the road here, with a handful of craft beers ~$6 each.  Had a Fat Tire, I did.

Bonus features were restrooms which were constructed for people who appreciate hygiene, and this is the first concert I’ve been to where the housekeeping staff was waiting to pick up and vacuum following the show.  The owners have some pride in their work, they do.

Calexico:

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If you’re thinking it sounds like a combination of “California” and “Mexico” you would, of course, be right.  It’s actually the name of a border town. Take fairly breezy tunes, pleasingly soft vocals, and spice them up with Mariachi horns and about everything else under the sun (pedal steel, electric guitar, standup bass, keyboards) and you have an interesting mix.  Interject some outright south-of-the-border tunes sung in Spanish, throw in an accordion, and the band gives good measure to all of their influences. 
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The only song that I could identify was also, by far, my favorite, “Para.”  They played several songs from their latest CD, but as yet I’ve been unable to find a set list.

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The positives of Calexico are all very, very good.  It’s a different type of music that was displayed in the right type of venue where each of the instruments can be heard.  Add lead writer/singer’s Joey Burns engaging stage presence, and it makes for a great show.  The trumpets, though... they leap beyond the digital 1’s and 0’s of a CD and really bring the music to life.

The disappointments are what they are.  With a double bill, my assumption is that they had to run through their material to keep the show to a particular schedule.  They had very limited audience interaction until they neared the end of their set.  

And secondly, as pleasing as the music was, it’s all built rather delicately.  I’m pining for Los Super 7, who do something similar musically but with a foot (and at times, two) firmly planted in the blues, adding a welcome punch.

Yo La Tengo:

As ascribed to the band, their name is Spanish for “I got it!” – in reference to a New York Mets outfielder who learned to ward away others when calling for a catch. 

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I’ll leave it to others to accurately describe the band’s music.  I’ll likely inaccurately describe it.

At times, they write songs that might be heard on soft pop radio stations, only, they’re not popular.  And at other times, they’re off to instrumental “experimental places.”  As it would turn out, singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan would explain to the audience that their music is less about the lyrics and more about the mood.  This was in evidence throughout the evening, with a pleasing rhythm section and electric guitar wails that my buddies felt echoed Hendrix. 

By mannerisms, I agree.  My impression was that it was like sitting in an apartment with three musicians who gel and “just play.”  The guitar wasn’t particularly frenetic from a fleet fingered perspective, but Kaplan was often bent over, bending the neck and managing feedback tones as he desired.  This wasn’t grating in any regard, but was a controlled expression.  The best “moment” was the entirety of their set finale, “I Heard You Looking,” which was at least a 10 minute build featuring additional support from members of Calexico.

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The band has been around almost 30 years, and they seem a very unlikely lot to have made it this far.   There’s no “rock star” persona here or standout tracks that convert new listeners.  You either get it or you don’t.   They proved themselves talented musicians, swapping instruments throughout the first half of the show, an “everyone rotate counter-clockwise” type of arrangement. 

The only disappointment were the encores.  Despite an interesting discussion of opening for Johnny Cash in 1995 in this venue, the songs selected were lifeless, perhaps better intended than delivered.

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Through several of their songs (not the least of which was the return of Calexico’s trumpets), I was reminded why speakers matter.  Sure, ear pods are convenient and make for an excellent listening experience between the ears, but live music presents sound that is a whole body experience, from the splitting highs to the vibrating lows.  Which is why I’ll keep going back for more.

A slight buzz doesn’t hurt.

4 of 5 STARS

 

 

Yo La Tengo set list:

Ohm
Big Day Coming
Stupid Things
Beanbag Chair
Cornelia and Jane
The Point of It
I’ll Be Around
From a Motel 6
Paddle Forward
Autumn Sweater
Before We Run
Sugarcube
I Heard You Looking (with Calexico)

Encore:

Cast a Shadow
I Still Miss Someone (Johnny Cash song)
Take Care

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