About a year and a half ago I was having a conversation with one of my friends here when the topic turned to the financial crisis engulfing the country. He was understandably glum on the issue, but not entirely without hope. “Tocando fondo” was the expression he used – “hitting the bottom” – suggesting that wherever things went from that point, Spain had to be on the up.
His optimism has been dashed. The situation here is worse than ever. Unemployment, especially among the young, remains stratospheric, and a series of austerity measures enforced by an unpopular new government (Mariano Rajoy’s ‘People’s Party’) are being met with anger and frustration by an increasingly disillusioned public. Yesterday violence broke out here, in Madrid and in several other Spanish cities as the country took part in a Europe-wide General Strike. A year and a half ago? This happened.
The situation is depressingly familiar, and still no closer to being resolved. Calexico and Andrew Bird both touched on it during their performances in Barcelona on Sunday and Monday night (the 11th and 12th of November) respectively. Both took place in the main hall of the Apolo venue (pictured) in the Raval district, and both were notable for the joy and fervour of its packed crowd. It is an oft-repeated discourse that that the arts take on greater significance in difficult times, but that doesn’t make it any less true: both concerts saw their subjects return for two encores, and both saw them profuse in their appreciation for their audience, who dispersed reluctantly but happily on both evenings.
Calexico were a revelation on Sunday. A well-established entity in Spain, off the back of remarkable new album Algiers they played a two-hour set that honoured both their latest work and a shiningly consistent discography. Getting things underway with a brooding performance of ‘Epic’, the opening song from Algiers, their show veered from the deep, subtle textures found on that album through exuberant mariachi rock, Latin jazz, dub and country music. There is a term in Spanish, golazo, which effectively means ‘incredible goal’; likewise, temazo refers to an incredible song, and Calexico’s show was full of them.
Intermittently joined onstage by collaborator Amparo Sánchez, the seven-piece configuration revelled in a crisp, perfect mix, Joey Burns’ voice ringing out with uncommon clarity, the multi-instrumentalist horn section note-perfect, and when Burns paused to offer the city a message of solidarity he was ecstatically received. Sánchez, too, was a warm presence; whether encouraging the audience to sing, dance and cheer to the band or smothering them in kisses as she made her exit, hers was an unexpected pleasure, and a reminder of the group’s generous, border-hopping approach to its music.
For these are extraordinarily evocative songs that Calexico can call their own. Highlights, temazos, were plenty, but the crowd singalong to ‘Güero Canelo’ was a particularly wonderful moment, latest single ‘Para’ was moody and powerful, ‘Two Silver Trees’ frosty and magnificent, while the brass on songs like ‘Across the Wire’ and ‘Crystal Frontier’ induced smiles across the audience. Heralded by a lengthy intro, ‘Sunken Waltz’ also felt oddly prescient (its lyrics sketch out a thorough rejection of capitalist Western values), not to mention a stirring few minutes of song.
The band closed with Algiers’ stunning finale ‘The Vanishing Mind’, but a little earlier – in the first of their encores – Burns and the rhythm section returned to the stage accompanied by Portland indie-folk band Blind Pilot (who I sadly missed earlier in the evening) to gather round a single microphone and play a cover of Gillian Welch’s ‘Look at Miss Ohio’. The result was truly, genuinely magical, something I’ll remember for a long time, made all the sweeter by Burns presenting their support act with a bouquet of flowers as they left the stage. Here’s a video of the song from the bands’ earlier stop in Madrid:
As the lights went down on the stage the following night, Andrew Bird emerged alone and launched straight into the BP oil spill-inspired ‘Hole in the Ocean Floor’. If 2009’s Noble Beast found him exploring natural, elemental themes with rare sensitivity, this song takes them to another level in its compassion and its eloquence. It’s not a bad way to start a show, either, and he is soon joined by the full band for blistering runs through much of this year’s superb Break It Yourself alongside fantastic versions of ‘Fiery Crash’ and ‘A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left’.
For all that though – and for all that the crowd were evidently in awe – there was a sense that he was not all that relaxed until he decided to see if his band were up for doing the ‘old-time’ portion of the set earlier than they had anticipated (he had just fluffed and promptly abandoned the tricksy looped introduction to ‘Give It Away’).
The ‘old-time’ sets consist of Bird and his band (that is, Alan Hampton on bass, Martin Dosh on drums and Jeremy Ylvisaker on guitar) gathered round a single microphone to play classic country songs and covers as well as re-imaginings of Bird’s own material. The response on tour has been overwhelming enough to inspire Break It Yourself’s companion piece Hands of Glory, and watching the group three nights ago, it wasn’t hard to see why. Separated from his loop-pedal and flanked by his band in folky, homespun style, Bird is relaxed and jovial…louche, almost, to the point where a female audience member felt prompted to scream (really, scream) “You’re so sexy!”
Abashed by the compliment, he almost immediately forgot the lines to his next song. “I was going to talk about the situation here…” he tells the crowd, “but, maybe, let’s keep things light. Just because it’s the apocalypse doesn’t mean we can’t have some fun.” With this last sentiment, I’m not sure whether he was referring to the content of his songs or what is happening at the moment in Spain, but in retrospect I would say he was likely referring to both, and the crowd were only too happy to go along with him.
(It wasn’t until the show I realised quite how heavily the apocalypse figures into Hands of Glory – despite the record featuring a pair of songs about three white horses, an original called ‘Something Biblical’ and a cover of ‘When That Helicopter Comes’ by the Handsome Family. Sample lyric: “Rocks are going to roll uphill / And the sun will dive in the sea.”)
The intimate nature of the ‘old-time’ segment, which included the group’s cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘If I Needed You’ alongside the picks of Hands of Glory and an unexpected ‘Sovay’ from The Mysterious Production of Eggs – went over brilliantly, and when the band finally nailed ‘Give It Away’ later on the audience roared approval. Spurred on, they dipped in and out of Bird’s now considerable back catalogue with abandon, the main man at his hypnotic best as he wrangled a wealth of sounds and effects out of his violin, clearly enjoying himself immensely. After nearly two hours and a surging, pyrotechnic ‘Fake Palindromes’, they were cheered back on for encore number two: a gentle, lilting take on ‘Don’t Be Scared’, another song by the Handsome Family, which Bird included on his 2003 album Weather Systems.
The song’s message is one of unity in the face of hardship: of love, solidarity and support. It was both an inspiring end to the evening (to two evenings, in a sense), and a potent reminder that these things – although the world can be a bit of a shitty place at times, governments regularly make self-serving, short-sighted decisions and truncheon-wielding riot police do not constitute the best way to placate a crowd – these things will never, ever cease to be the most important. Van Zandt’s ‘If I Needed You’, in fact, shares this message. Temazos, the both of them.
Live ‘old-time’ photo by Maria Soler