The Newport Folk Festival was never strictly limited to folk music, but the 2008 festival expanded the musical diversity of the festival more than ever before. Perhaps taking a cue from the massive success of younger festivals like Bonnaroo, the 2008 festival included bigger ticket artists like The Black Crowes, Jimmy Buffett, The Levon Helm Band, Trey Anastasio and The Cowboy Junkies, right along with the folk, bluegrass and blues troubadours that once topped the bill. Despite some weather issues, this approach turned out to be a resounding success and all of the headlining acts turned in memorable performances that often conveyed the influence of the traditional styles that originally launched the festival.
One of the most memorable performances of the 2008 festival was provided by the Tucson-based band Calexico. Named after the Southwestern border town in California, Calexico was founded in 1990 by Joey Burns and John Cupertino, who first teamed up as the rhythm section for the Los Angeles group Giant Sand, Calexico may seem like an unusual choice for a folk festival, but they do indeed play folk music - just not a typically American style of folk music. With eclectic tastes that include the traditional Latin sounds of mariachi, cumbia, conjunto and tejano, Portuguese fado, and American country, rock, folk and jazz, Calexico creates a unique blend of many seemingly disparate musical forms that results in a cinematic sound all their own. The band features a multicultural mix of musicians, and other than founders Burns and Cupertino, has had a revolving door policy on membership. Burns has gone on record saying it all boils down to his love for the yearning, melancholy feel of "minor blues," but Calexico's motivational impetus involves thinking outside any specific genres. Although much of their most compelling music includes musical textures and images that transport listeners to the southwestern frontier and border regions, Calexico transcends musical boundaries.
This recording of Calexico at Newport captures the band at a particularly strong moment in time, performing before a very receptive audience, just a month prior to the release of Carried To Dust, which many consider Calexico's finest studio album to date, The set begins with Burns alone, singing the traditional lullaby "All The Pretty Horses," a song his mother sang to him and an example of that "minor blues" sound. This serves as a prelude to the Burns penned opening sequence of "Frontera/Trigger," tracks originally recorded for the group's second album, The Black Light. Essentially a murder ballad with mariachi horns, this opening sequence typifies the band's cinematic approach to composing, instantly evoking the desert and dusty border towns of the past.
The next half dozen songs treat listeners to three back to back highlights from the band's 2003 album Feast Of Wire, followed by three previews from the forthcoming Carried To Dust album. The Feast Of Wire sequence begins with a Marty Robbins' style narrative in the border patrol dodging ballad "Across The Wire." This is followed by the lush and lovely, "Not Even Stevie Nicks," a pristine pop song about a man driving his car off a cliff. This sequence concludes with a passionate reading of "Woven Birds," a quiet reverie for an abandoned mission left to the ghosts. All three of these songs are well crafted portraits of injustice and loss and feature instrumentation that blends in compelling and unpredictable ways. Three previews of material soon to be issued on Carried To Dust are performed next, beginning with the atmospheric "Two Silver Trees," featuring an outstanding contribution from pianist Sergio Mendoza. A propulsive "Inspiracion" is next, fueled by a heavy Latino rhythm and showcasing the extraordinary trumpeter Jacob Valenzuela singing the lead vocal in Spanish, which then segues into the contemplative high lonesome sound of "Slowness."
"Alone Again Or," a classic number from the 1968 album Forever Changes by the Los Angeles band, Love, surfaces next. Featuring superb acoustic guitar work and an expressive vocal from Burns, this kind of psychedelia may seem a surprising cover choice for Calexico, but it fits right in with its Latin flavor and flamenco influenced guitar flourishes. What many consider to be a highlight of the entire 2008 festival occurs next, when Calexico invite Jim James, front man of My Morning Jacket, to join them onstage. With James on lead vocal, they deliver an unforgettable rendition of Bob Dylan's "Going To Acapulco," which James and Calexico had contributed to the Dylan biopic 'I'm Not There" the year before. Burns was born the year after Dylan went electric at Newport, but Calexico and James skillfully evoke the sound of Dylan and The Band circa The Basement Tapes. Taken along with the Love cover, these numbers convey a group whose sound is rooted in a much wider variety of music than just traditional forms.
As they approach the finish line, Calexico close it out with two songs that will remain staples of their live repertoire and both feature extraordinary musicianship. The first, "Crystal Frontier," which would surface on their box set Road Atlas, is rather dark. With its slow building dynamic, this allows the group to stretch out a bit. This leads up to the rousing closer, "Guero Canelo," with is spicy flavor and ebullient vocal arrangement undeniably compelling. Few bands could mix such seemingly diverse elements into such a cohesive blend as the group does on this set. As this remarkable recording makes clear, Calexico has become a magnet for extremely talented musicians capable of thinking outside the box and by exploring a wide variety of traditional and popular forms; they have created a sound that is undeniably original.