Following the lead of fellow Portland blogger Hungry T (from whose blog I was alerted to the existence of slammin’ Tommy Guerrero — he of Bones Brigade skate legend), this post is not related to food, but rather music.
Monday night I had the pleasure of catching Calexico at the Wonder Ballroom on N. Russell street. If you’ve never been to the Wonder Ballroom, it’s a great venue to catch live music. This is my second show I’ve seen here — the first being the New Pornographers last fall.
The ballroom showcases its bands fairly well. Not overly crowded, they have a nice balcony that, unlike the Roseland, is actually navigatable. Beer is accessible, served both on the ground floor and upstairs in the balcony. Plus, you can alway shoot downstairs between sets for a stiff cocktail. I’m not a discerning audiophile by any means, but generally the sound is very good.
I’m not sure if I missed the opening act or not. It was slated to be Erich Bachman, the lead for one of my favorite bands, Crooked Fingers. The last time I saw Bachman, he played a solo acoustic set at Dante’s. I was hoping to see him play with a backing band, but we didn’t arrive at Wonder until after 9 pm and apparently missed his set, so I’ll never know. The gentleman on stage at the time, who was singing in Spanish, was definitely not Erich Bachman. His long, flowing hair, streaked with grey, and sauve, latin stylings gave the impression of Ricardo Montalban’s hipster cousin on mescaline. This guy later joined Calexico on stage. I’m not sure if Erich Bachman even played, and I’m disappointed either way.
On to Calexico themselves. Having spent a number of my post-college years in Tucson, Arizona, from which Calexico hails (ostensibly), we were almost forced to acknowledge the band as the saviors of local music. Around 1997-98, when the band started to gain steam, they would play often around town — mariachi-tinged songs and dense, noir-suffused numbers that had me deem them the “valium cowboys.”
After being universally hailed by the local press for years, I suffered a Calexico backlash of sorts and generally did not pay much attention to them once I moved to Portland. Fast forward to 2006, and the band has released their latest album, Garden Ruin, that sees Joey Burns and John Convertino exploring more conventional song structures and straightforward indie pop/rock. A friend described it as “Adult Contemporary-ish”, but I have to say it’s a very tight, strongly produced effort.
Songs from the Garden Ruin came across very well live, often times punchier and more racuous. The clear crowd favorites were the Spaghetti Nogales songs from their Hot Rail album. As a whole, the band performed incredibly well, and the live horns made for some brassy fun. They sounded great, and Joey Burns’ live vocals and stage presence have really grown up since the last time I had seen the band in a cramped, smokey Club Congress stage in Tucson. A huge backdrop of random, looped reel footage, which can often feel gimmicky, was very cool and added a slightly surreal, atmospheric touch.
Quick food note: okay, I lied, there is a food element to this post. Before the show, we met for cocktails and noshes at Echo Restaurant, which was located right around the corner on MLK. I started with a Manza (sic?), a concoction of grapefruit, framboise and vodka. It was tasty and went down way too fast. I followed with a Monapalowa and grapefruit. I ordered the house salad — a simple green leaf tossed in a tangy vinagrette with blue cheese and toasted hazelnuts. $5 and very simple – nothing really of note. I moved on to the steamed clams ($8), which I enjoyed with a Bridgeport IPA on tap. The clams were steamed in a beer butter broth, and came with a hunk of toasted bread to sop up the juices. The clams were on the small side and reasonably tender. The broth could have benefited from the addition of something else, maybe some herbs or a more aggressive seasoning approach. The sauteed garlic shoots served on top of the steamers were delicious and made for a nice presentation.
Overall, it was a decent, if somewhat perfunctory, pre-show meal. My buddy’s pulled pork sandwich in his estimations was “very good.” A lady at our table she ate her entire her burger without any mention towards its merits or demerits, so I assume it was acceptable.