Tag Archives: Rob Burger

Iron and Wine & Calexico @ the Royal Festival Hall, 23 November

I’ve gotten a lot from the recent records by both artists, so was really excited to see them play live together, especially after hearing their new collaborative album Years to Burn, which came out in the spring, and rating it pretty highly.

The set began with Follow the Water, which may be my favourite track from the album. The band immediately swung into gear, and if Joey Burns hit a bad note on lead guitar and Sam Beam’s vocal was a little quiet as the sound guys worked out the level, it was no big.

Next was He Lays in the Reins, with Burns taking lead vocal. I guess this was so Beam could cover the harmony, which lies above the range of the melody. It kind of makes you wish that they’d recorded the song as a duet originally, but In the Reins was much more an Iron and Wine EP with Calexico backing him than a 50/50 collaboration.

Next was Father Mountain, on which the Beam/Burns harmonies again sounded great, and Glimpse, a Calexico song.

The centrepiece of Years to Burn is The Bitter Suite, which is made up of two slow songs bookending a jam featuring some great Miles Davis-style trumpet from Jacob Valenzuela. Other than the trumpet not sounding as echoey and cool as it does on the recording, the band handled the demanding 9-minute piece well. Valenzuela’s lead vocal on Pajaro was mournful and moving, and John Convertino powered through band through Evil Eye, the instrumental section, from behind his drum kit. Tennessee Train, the slow, mournful Sam Beam song that ends the suite, is spine-tingling on record, but live demonstrated what would be my one gripe about the show.

Beam has a particular type of voice: soft, sad and consistent in timbre across his range. He began as an Elliott Smith-style whisperer and evolved into a real singer from there. But he’s not a singer who can adapt the timbre of his voice and sing louder and more open throatedly without his tone becoming hard and brittle. At times on Saturday I felt he over-decorated the melodies of certain songs and sang more strident, arena-sized melodies that didn’t quite suit his voice or the moment. On a song other than Tennessee Train, it might not have mattered, but it did slightly mar one of his best songs.

Next was a really good cover of Lucinda Williams’s I Lost It, and Midnight Sun, which I liked more than its studio recording, but it was maybe a weaker moment in the set in terms of the writing.

Sixteen, Maybe Less was an odd one. Beam botched the lyrics one line in and laughed it off while carrying on the song rather than starting again. The band slid in after the first verse and I soon forgot about Beam’s early flub, but he also forgot lyrics in the second set of verses and instead began talk-singing the verse. Now, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t still a little misty at the end of the song, but as with Tennessee Train, some of Beam’s performance choices took me out of a song I’d expected simply to get lost in.

No problems arose from Flores y Tamales, though. The Spanish-language, cumbia-inflected song from Calexico’s 2018 album The Thread that Keeps Us, sung by Valenzuela, was a real set highlight, as was the short sequence of songs that Beam and Burns sung as a duo.

They began with the old Iron and Wine favourite Naked As We Came, a vehicle for Beam’s deft fingerpicking and the harmonies the pair have perfected (see video above for a radio session). They followed that up with a pair of covers: Chris Gaffney’s Frank’s Tavern, which Calexico have been playing for years and which fits them like a glove (they brought Valenzuela back to the stage to join in on trumpet, and it was great), and the Everly Brothers’ All I Have to Do is Dream, for which they brought back opener Lisa O’Neill. Personally, I didn’t feel that O’Neill’s rough, gnarled voice was a brilliant fit for such a gentle song and would rather have heard Beam sing lead. It was a nice inclusive gesture though.

The band came back on and went into the bluesy Red Dust from In the Reins, on which bass player Sebastian Steinberg played a long double bass solo. Steinberg is an excellent player, but it went on a few minutes too long for my liking, given that it was basically unaccompanied and with no harmonic context. Next was a nice cover of Echo & the Bunnymen’s Bring on the Dancing Horses and Iron and Wine’s Boy with a Coin, on which the band nodded at the arrangement of the recording while taking it somewhere different and cool. Definitely a set highlight.

The final three songs of the set were an absolutely lovely version of Years to Burn, which had all the weary delicacy of the studio recording, a fun version of History of Lovers (never liked the nursery rhyme-ness of this song all that much, but enjoyed it on the night) and What Heaven’s Left, the opening track of Years to Burn, which worked well as a set closer – nicely celebratory, with a cool outro jam featuring lots of John Convertino’s drum fills and Valenzuela’s trumpet.  The encore, short and sweet, was In Your Own Time, which they stripped back compared to the album recording, losing some of the barroom swagger. Still, it was a good song to end on, and the natural, inevitable closer since it hadn’t appeared in the main set.

I’ve seen Calexico a few times now, and they’re never less than impressive. Their collective musicianship is just so good. Convertino is a joy, and Burns has developed into a really effective singer and focal point for the band. Beam was a little more hit and miss. Possibly it was an end-of-tour thing, but I think I’d have enjoyed a couple of the songs more if he’d played them a little straighter, singing the melodies as written and keeping his voice in the dynamic range where it sounds best. Nevertheless, having not seen an iron and Wine gig yet, I’d not hesitate to go next time he’s over here with his band.

A final word about Rob Burger – I’ve not really mentioned his contributions on keyboards and steel guitar, but he was absolutely crucial to the success of the gig. The guy is completely gifted and brilliant.

 

Years to Burn – Calexico and Iron & Wine

The first collaborative mini album by Calexico and Iron & Wine, In the Reins, was really more of an Iron & Wine record with Calexico as backing band. Sure, Calexico shaped the music a lot, as theirs is an immediately identifiable sound, but all the songs are credited to Sam Beam Music, and Beam sings lead on all of them.

In the 14 years since, Calexico have gone from being a high-class engine room with some proper songs here and there to a real-deal songwriting band that also happen to be one of the best rhythm-sections-for-hire in the business, and Joey Burns has become a proper singer and frontman. Years to Burn, then, is closer to a 50/50 collaboration than In the Reins was, with Joey Burns writing Midnight Sun with his brother John, taking lead vocals on three songs and getting co-writing credits on Pájaro and Evil Eye (part of side two’s The Bitter Suite). The record as a whole feels like a genuine synthesis of his and Calexico’s musical voices in a way I find more convincing than the charming but perhaps patchier In the Reins.

The album begins with What Heaven’s Left. With John Convertino’s big, reverb-laden tom-tom fills, Beam’s primary-colour chord changes and touches of pedal steel and trumpet, it sounds exactly like what you’d hope for from the collaboration. Beam’s best songs often have short melodic phrases that follow a repeating rhythmic pattern but with notes that move with the chord changes*, making them instantly, comfortingly familiar without being repetitive. They’re elemental, as if dug out of the ground. The chorus of What Heaven’s Left (“I could be lost in the hills, laid on the street…”) is a pretty great example of how these types of tunes work. It’s simple, but doing simple well is far harder than is sometimes imagined.

Track two, Midnight Sun, is the Burns/Burns co-write, and it’s an odd confection: a short, repeated melody from Burns that Beam answers (Burns’s part descends; Beam, in quasi falsetto, goes up) laid over a second line-ish drum pattern from Convertino. It works, but perhaps having it as the second track makes it carry a little too much weight; it’s better in the context of the whole record than it is if you listen to it on its own. Full marks, though, for the fuzz-tone John Martynish solo.

Father Mountain is another Beam effort. As on What Heaven’s Left, Beam is in a beatific musical mood, even as his lyrics suggest something a little more complicated going on. It’s a song about leaving behind what appears to be the life laid out for you by others (in this case, a father who’s building a mansion on the mountain) to pursue your own happiness. The band plays it big and open, with a hint of stomp, masking the lyrics’ implications a little. I noted above that Beam has a gift for the simple melody built on instantly memorable short phrases. At his best, this allows him to create songs that feel like they must always have existed in folk memory. When he’s not quite on his game, it can make his songs sound a little nursery rhyme-ish. Father Mountain at times feels like it’s about to cross the line from simple to simplistic, but the addition of a strong middle eight pulls it over the line.

Outside El Paso is something very different. A 90-second instrumental built on Rob Burger’s prepared piano, Convertino’s free-form drums and Jacob Valenzuela’s dusty trumpet, it sounds appropriately like a blasted desert landscape, the sort of haunting warm-up that crops up on electric-era Miles Davis records. I’m always a bit disappointed it doesn’t lead into a 20-minute free-jazz epic, to be honest, though on its own terms it’s an album highlight and demonstrates the range and skill of the players involved.

Decorated by Burns’s and Beam’s interweaving acoustic guitars and the gorgeously understated piano and organ of Rob Burger**, Follow the Water is another of the album’s high points, its minor chords constantly resolving upwards in stepwise motion. Burns and Beam once again sound great in harmony on the chorus.

The album’s centrepiece is The Bitter Suite. It works much as Paul McCartney’s suite-songs do: the fragments are juxtaposed next to each other and left to get on with it rather than being genuinely linked musically. While the transitions may be a bit ungainly, the suite as a whole succeeds on the strength of its constituent parts. The mournful Pájaro is sung in Spanish by Jacob Valenzuela, while Beam’s Tennessee Train is starkly beautiful. Both songs feature the intriguing observation “There are dreams wild enough to pass the time” (Google translate tells me that that’s the translation in English of Pájaro’s first line), and the choruses of Beam’s Tennessee Train resolve with the phrase “Trains leave Tennessee moaning as they roll away” – Beam once again proving that he’s a master of the evocative and mysterious place name allusion.

Evil Eye, sandwiched between the two vocal songs, is basically a jam based on a drop-tuned acoustic guitar riff, with some wordless vocals on top. It’s fine (Valenzuela plays some more Miles-influenced trumpet – this time, laced with echo and delay à la Bitches Brew, and Convertino’s on good form, playing with brushes but giving his snare an unusually fierce pounding) but it’s rather overshadowed by what comes before and after. I’d have been fine if Pájaro and Tennessee Train had been left as separate songs.

(Finishing the suite with a voiceover proclaiming “life is bittersweet” is goofy as hell. Is it a sample from a movie? I couldn’t place it.)

The gorgeously sleepy title track, with a gentle, lullaby-ish vocal from Joey Burns, is the album’s penultimate track and another of its best moments. I particularly love the bar of 9/8 that turns the chorus back round on itself, and Valenzuela’s trumpet playing is spine-tinglingly lovely.

In Your Own Time closes the record. It’s one of Beam’s earliest songs, originally recorded 20 years ago when he was making recordings at home on a 4-track. On that recording, Beam’s voice is not much more than a whisper, and the song, well written as it is, sounds more like an intellectual exercise than something that the singer has lived and experienced for himself. He’s revived it down the years, and I’ve heard him sing it much more passionately, but I’m not sure I’ve heard him match Burns’s performance of it here. Once again, Calexico bring a sort of woozy bar-room swagger to the song, and Burns’s vocal, with Beam adding harmony, turns the song into something celebratory. It’s a great closing track.

Years to Burn is a very fine record, if not quite in the same league as Iron & Wine’s Beast Epic from 2017 and Calexico’s Edge of the Sun from 2015, which are both big favourites of mine. It’s a low-stakes kind of record, and it has the feel of friends hanging out and  making music together. Which – the work that it takes to arrange and rehearse granted – is what it is, but it’s so hard to capture vibe and atmosphere on tape. Years to Burn, at its most expansive, intimate or joyful, is such a pleasing collection not just because of the quality of the songs and performances, but because of the way it feels. I’m seeing them at the Royal Festival Hall in November and can’t wait to hear these songs live.

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*If it sounds strange that I’d remark on the concept of singing different notes over different chords, think about how many songs in the last 10-15 years have choruses that are built on singing the same melodic phrase over a I-V-vi-IV chord sequence.

**Burger’s a fantasticd multi-instrumentalist, much employed by a huge crop of singer-songwriters. As well as being a regular member of Sam Beam’s band, he can be found on recent/recent-ish records by Bob Weir, Aoife O’Donovan, Sera Cahoone, Alela Dianne, case/lang/veirs and Linda Thompson.

Ladybug – Sera Cahoone

In 2014, Tawnee Baird was stabbed 46 times by her girlfriend,  Victoria Mendoza, who is now 18 months into a 16-years-to-life jail sentence for Baird’s murder. The two were in a car on Interstate 15 when an argument between the pair escalated into violence and Mendoza began stabbing Baird. At the time of her murder, Baird was 21, Mendoza 22.

Sera Cahoone has been a fixture in Seattle’s music scene for around 15 years now, initially as drummer for late-period Carissa’s Wierd (sic) and early-period Band of Horses. She released her first, self-titled, solo album, in 2006, and has made three more since, most recently From Where I Started, which came out in March 2017.

Cahoone has a lovely, unaffected voice, and she uses it to illuminate without over-decorating her melodies, which on From Where I Started are universally strong. She and producer John Morgan Askew put together a top-notch band for the project, too: Rob Burger (who’s played with Iron & Wine, Calexico and Lucinda Williams among many, many others),  Jeff Fielder (Mark Lanegan, Amy Ray), Jason Kardong (Son Volt), Dave Depper (Death Cab for Cutie) and Annalisa Tornfeldt (Aoife O’Donovan, the Minus 5). They decorate her songs with minimal, sympathetic touches – nothing showy, everything for the song. A songwriter couldn’t ask for more from her collaborators.

While From Where I Started is compelling all the way through (and Up to Me, Better Woman and Not Like I are all wonderful), but it’s Ladybug, Cahoone’s tribute to Tawnee Baird, that hits hardest. Not just because the song is beautiful, with a lovely arrangement and graceful melody that’s full of empathy and regret for dreams that can never be fulfilled, but because Baird was Cahoone’s cousin.

Cahoone has talked about the process of writing Ladybug, and of her memories of Baird, in several interviews (such as this one with NPR), but still, whenever I hear the song, I find myself thinking not about how the song works on a formal level (which is what I usually do) but instead wondering how Cahoone found the strength, the grace, to write something like Ladybug in the face of such terrible events. How do you honour the memory of someone close to you who died in such violent circumstances without the sadness overwhelming you or the anger making you bitter and vengeful?

It’s not a question many of us are in a position to answer. I’ve been sitting on this blog for over a week, trying to think of more to say, and I really don’t think I can add anything more. The song speaks for itself, with an eloquence and humanity that amazes me. The video below is from a live session Cahoone recorded recently for KEXP. In some ways, it’s even better than the album recording.