The plight of migrant workers has been a thread through Calexico's oeuvre for more than a decade, and the band has delivered the message using its Arizona border sound in small doses all over the globe.
Over that time, much has changed here on the ground. Migrant traffic has evolved from largely mom-and-pop operations into an ominous, large-scale institution dominated by Mexico's pervasive organized-crime syndicates. The trek is longer and more dangerous, the technology and logistics more insidious, and drug-trafficking ever more a handmaiden.
Still, like any war, the drama unfolds uniquely in every psyche, one life story, one human experience at a time. It's in that human connection where Calexico finds its muse, and as the band has grown in sophistication, the message of suffering has grown ever more powerful. Now, in songs like "Frontera/Trigger" and "Roka," the fearful migrant story is told in a dense and swirling setting emblematic of the complex world from which it derives.
As ever, Calexico conveys the migrant message deftly and briefly in a set, then moves on, but the influence of Mexico's music continues to grow, evolve and, in its way, evangelize for empathy. As performed at the Rialto, the band's border sound was ramped up from mariachi to mambo-sized, incorporating as many as 19 players, including a nine-piece horn section at times, clarinet, harmonium and, at one point, two drum kits augmented by conga drums.
Much of the additional musician power was courtesy of Sergio Mendoza's astonishingly lively and crisp Y La Orchestra, which opened the show. Mendoza is well-known to fans of The Jons and La Cerca, but this rock-infused Pérez Prado, almost Cubanismo incarnation appears to be fairly new, revealing a powerful leadership talent that's not as evident in The Jons' smaller configuration. Mariachi Luz de Luna's Ruben Moreno contributed trumpet during the Calexico set, and both bands benefited from Salvador Duran's vocals, maracas and platform polyrhythms. Craig Schumacher sat in on harmonica, and Nick Luca contributed shimmering, super-clean guitar thrills, once again illustrating that he's a top-notch picker for any era and genre.
A slide show of art by Victor Gastelum, whose work graces nearly all of Calexico's album covers, amped the visual dimensions of the performance to match its outsized sound.