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Calexico and Iron & Wine at Mountain Winery

In Music
TEAM PLAYERS: The chemistry is palpable between Sam Beam of Iron & Wine and Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico.

TEAM PLAYERS: The chemistry is palpable between Sam Beam of Iron & Wine and Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico.

Usually a musical collaboration is one of two things: a defining partnership on which careers are built, or a one-time experimental fling between two or more parties looking for a spark.

The latest collaboration between Calexico and Iron & Wine is a third thing altogether: a momentary experiment that slowly built into something more lasting.

Calexico is the long-standing Arizona-based duo of Joey Burns and John Convertino, known for their often dusty, cinematic musical textures. Iron & Wine is the performance moniker of singer-songwriter Sam Beam, whose signature style features lyrical, sometimes ethereal neo-folk melodies and ghostly harmonies.

Burns, Convertino and Beam are joining forces on an ambitious international tour that brings them to the South Bay this Sunday. The tour comes on the heels of the release of Years to Burn, the trio’s new collaborative album, recorded in Nashville with many of the members of their respective touring bands.

Years is a sprightly, lilting country-rock record that Gram Parsons might have loved. But it’s not the first recording the trio has done together. That one dates back to 2005, an EP called In the Reins.

Singer and guitarist Burns says that the differences between Reins and the new album are stark. “Back in 2004, we essentially met in the studio as strangers. We really didn’t know each other that well. We had met once before. So, it was really like an experiment, and it wound up going really well.”

However, Beam—who had, at the time, just released his most acclaimed album Our Endless Numbered Days—was driving the bus creatively. He ended up writing all of the EP’s seven songs, and critics often look at In the Reins as an Iron & Wine album with Calexico providing some new spices.

Years to Burn is more egalitarian, with Burns contributing a few songs as songwriter. Most emblematic of the melding of the two bands comes by way of The Bitter Suite, a eight-minute-plus medley that opens with moody Spanish-language narration by longtime Calexico trumpet player Jacob Valenzuela before moving into a nicely atmospheric guitar interlude and finally to a haunting Beam melody that would feel right at home on an Iron & Wine album.

In the long gap between the two collaborative albums, Beam and Calexico have worked together occasionally. Calexico has consistently sought out collaborations, from the expected to the out-of-left-field (Nancy Sinatra, anyone?). Burns says that he and Convertino are always looking for willing partners to explore new vistas.

“We’re pretty open-minded,” he says. “I like collaborating with people who have an unusual sense of character, a unique voice, a unique slant on their craft and their music. I like to challenge ourselves as well. Certain collaborations over the years, well, I wasn’t sure it would work out. But I’m always up for the adventure. We’ll try anything.”

That sense of free-wheeling audacity has led them to take on such wildly diverse talents as folk singer-songwriter Amos Lee, electronic dance act Goldfrapp, and UK electronica duo Two Lone Swordsmen.

Not all collaborations are successful. Burns remembered inviting an older folk musician to visit Tucson in hopes of finding a bit of collaborative magic. “Well,” he says, “it was that time of year, summer, in Tucson. And we were in a venue or studio that had no air-conditioning. We’re accustomed to it, but poor guy, the weather was just not agreeing with him.”

Wait, no air-conditioning? In Arizona?

“Yeah, there are very few studios in Tucson that have air-conditioning that is always on. A lot of the studios that I love working with, you have to turn off a swamp cooler or air-conditioning unit to prevent the noise from getting on the session. I’ve just come to realize recently, that’s ridiculous. We’re in the desert. We have to be comfortable.”

There were no such issues on the Years to Burn sessions, which were held in Nashville. “It was a dream,” says Burns. The new record also reminded the musicians of Calexico just how good Sam Beam is.

“Everyone knows him as this amazing singer-songwriter, and he is that,” says Burns. “But he’s a whole lot more. He complements us because he encourages us to try new things with rhythm, composition and structure. He’s got a great sense of space and ambience. And those harmonies, he comes up with these harmonies that are just incredible.”

Calexico + Iron & Wine
Oct 6, 7:30pm, $39+
The Mountain Winery, Saratoga


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