[The Mail On Sunday, 2004]
Royal Festival Hall, London
THERE IS UNDENIABLY something of the mad auntie about Patti Smith. And you can't put it down to the advancing years. It's easy to imagine her, even in her Seventies pomp, haranguing bus drivers about the geopolitics of fossil fuels (“Yes, but are you getting on or off, love?”), or seizing the microphone at your wedding reception to deliver a ten-minute, free-verse soliloquy on the Mother Goddess.
Patti Smith has been great, and awful, and both for the same reason: she has no idea where or when to stop. After a patch of rather enervated work, which had all the portentousness but none of the whirlwind potency of her early magnum opi, it's good to have her back in full horse-frightening mode. trampin', like Smith herself, is erratic and unruly; it lurches between compelling and excruciating.
On Jubilee, Stride Of The Mind and My Blakean Year we hear the fired-up, caterwauling Smith who was such a decisive influence on PJ Harvey. On Peaceable Kingdom and Cartwheels, we hear the meditative Smith who can boast quite a way with a tune. And on Radio Baghdad we hear the strident, shameless demagogue who also, in a wince-making tribute to the Mahatma, hunts for words that rhyme with “Gandhi”. And, alas, picks “candy”.
Cited by Patti Smith, William Blake then turns up at the Calexico show. Not in the stalls, which really would be a turn-up, but on a screen behind the stage, where his paintings are projected. For most bands, it would be presumptuous in the extreme to invoke Blake's peculiar vision and his emotive, uncompromised way of expressing it. Calexico, by their own milder lights, are entitled to. That makes them a rarity within the Americana revival, which is certainly high on merit, but arguably low on idiosyncracy.
Nobody since The Band has drawn so redolently on America's frontier past, although Calexico's specific sources are markedly different. They combine mariachi guitar and Latin horns with Country & Western - emphasis on the Western - to produce an enthralling sound unmistakably their own. Hearing them evolve from tentative but enterprising instrumentalists into tonight's masterful outfit, justly confident in their own songwriting, has been one of the richer pleasures of recent years.
Unlike The Band, Calexico are not in the business of revitalising American mythology. They set off the old West against a modern landscape of proliferating suburbs and voracious strip malls (beautifully captured on Sunken Waltz) serviced by illegal immigrants (Across The Wire, achieving in microcosm what Bruce Springsteen's The Ghost of Tom Joad attempted in overview.)
Their set can dissolve into inky abstraction one moment and gel into startling cohesion the next. The only disappointment, after an hour of sublime and singular music, is the encore. With several marvellous songs left unplayed, they instead deliver a well-intentioned but tiresome extended jazz-salsa jam featuring the support act. A nice, warm gesture to your touring companions, no question; but not so generous to your audience.
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