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In the music spotlight: Calexico

BY JEFF ELBEL | FOR THE SUN-TIMES

Joey Burns and John Convertino have made a career of bringing music across various borders into Calexico’s home turf in Tucson, Arizona. When developing material for new album “Edge of the Sun,” the group traveled to Mexico City for immersion in a new environment.

“It was really inspiring, being in a different place,” says Burns. “So often, we’re on tour and we only get to see a town for a few hours, and then we’re off.”

Burns notes that despite Calexico’s international appeal, the band had only been to Mexico City once before. “The other incentive is that if we talk about this place enough, maybe someone down there will find us a gig in Monterey or Mexico City,” he says, laughing. “It can be hard for North American acts to play in Mexico, and yet we’re so close. Part of this is looking through the window facing south and getting the chance to work, meet people and establish friendships there.”

Past songs, including “Across the Wire” from 2003’s “Feast of Wire” album, have reflected Burns’ perspective on the immigrant experience. The new album’s “Bullets and Rocks” features close harmony with Sam Beam of Iron & Wine while describing the issue from a personal perspective. “It’s a universal family experience,” says Burns. “We’re are all brothers and sisters, regardless of where we come from.”

“I live in a state that is very conservative and treats immigration in a completely different way from how I feel it should be done,” says Burns. “We live in what is called the Sonoran Desert. It stretches not only through much of southeastern Arizona, but also into northern Sonora, Mexico. The landscape unifies us, and yet there is a border running between. I see the music as an offering of appreciation for others.”

Cumbia de Donde” folds cumbia, indie-folk, psychedelic ambience, and call-and-response vocals into a joyous, dance-friendly hybrid akin to raucous live favorite “Güero Canelo.” The song features Tucson-based mambo king Sergio Mendoza on piano and freaked-out analog synthesizers, alongside Calexico’s seasoned trumpeters Jacob Valenzuela and German native Martin Wenk.

Calexico’s seven-piece line-up of multi-instrumentalists will perform at the intimate Lincoln Hall. “Having seven musicians on stage is just incredible,” says Burns. “In Chicago, it’s going to be something special. We’ve played the venue before. It’s not a big stage, so we can’t just spread out. We’ll have to make some sacrifices, physically. That’s going to lead to an interesting show and interesting versions of songs.”

* Calexico, with Gaby Moreno, 9 p.m. May 31 (May 30 sold-out), Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln. $25 (21+over). Visit lincolnhallchicago.com.

SPOTIFY playlist: http://bit.ly/CalexicoSPOT

Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer. Email: elbel.jeff@gmail.com