Few bands have found more ways to get their music out than Los Lobos, a Grammy-award winning act nominated to the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame last year. During the 43 years since David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, Louie Perez and Conrad Lozano first formed in 1973, they have put out 24 albums and their music has appeared in numerous compilations and soundtracks. They’ve scored a number one hit with a cover of “La Bamba,” and have even made an album of songs from Disney films. The title track for their first major-label album was inspired by a National Geographic article, “Where Can the Wolf Survive?” The band has said in years since that the title track “Will the Wolf Survive?” (off the album of the same name) was about trying to maintain commercial viability while keeping true to their Mexican roots.
When Los Lobos broadsided the pop-laden video age of the 1980s with a tight and tough “Don’t Worry Baby,” they were already grizzled music veterans, having been together since the 1970s as a band out of east Los Angeles. But if there’s one thing about the group that has remained constant since their first major-label release in 1984, it’s the way their sound is always evolving.
With each tour, each show, you really have to keep a sharp eye on the description of what kind of show it’s going to be. Is it going to be a full-on rock show, an acoustic event, a Tex-Mex revival?
This time around they are playing a lot of shows called “Los Lobos Disconnected.” Which is not necessarily unplugged. Instead, it’s described as acoustic guitars, bass, keyboards and some very loud drums.
“The Flagstaff show will be our ‘Disconnected’ show so we will touch on a little of everything, albeit somewhat quieter than usual,” says band member Steve Berlin. “It’ll be fun.”
The following night at a concert in Chandler, they will be doing what they call Fiesta México Americano, which is, according to their web site, “an evening celebrating the Mexican-American experience through song and dance music with Ballet Folklorico Mexicano de Carlos Moreno.”
One thing is for sure about Los Lobos: The “Wolves” are ever-changing and always on the move.
Baritone sax man and keyboardist Berlin came out of the Los Angeles punk and roots rock scene and is a former member of the Blasters and the lesser known band, The Flesheaters. He joined Los Lobos in time to be part of one of the great albums of the 1980s, “How Will the Wolf Survive?” His baritone sax adds body to the band’s electric guitars, and his keyboard work creates a kind of avant-garde sensibility that really came to the forefront for the “Kiko” album, a highly experimental record that achieved critical acclaim.
For Berlin, now a much-sought-out producer and arranger who lives in Portland, Oregon, a 32-year relationship with anybody is quite an achievement. When he started out, prior to his days with Los Lobos, he was playing with numerous Los Angeles acts before he became one of the mainstays of the band as it became a national, rather than regional, sensation.
“I was not with them when Los Lobos was forming, so my experience was as a sideman at that point of my life,” Berlin says. “It was an exhilarating time to be in L.A. making music for sure. I was ‘in’ about 10 bands back then and it wasn’t unusual for me to have two to four gigs on any given night. Things were cheap then so I was able to support myself as a working musician relatively easily. My heart goes out to anyone trying that now … I’m sure my little garage in Venice is renting for about ten times what it cost me then.”
How has the band managed to survive after all this time?
“We are lucky enough to do something in which the sum is almost always greater than the simple addition of the constituent parts, and I think we all realize it,” Berlin says.”And we almost never look back or count the score. And we try to always move forward.”
The new record “Gates of Gold,” released last fall, is a testament to the band’s versatility. The opening track, “Made to Break Your Heart,” is a free-flowing guitar-oriented rocker that moves into an extended jam, then follows with an experimental jazz noir track reminiscent of work from the adventurous 1990s album “Kiko.” That song is then followed by “Mis-treater Boogie Blues,” which features propulsive ZZ Top-style guitars. The song “Gates of Gold” features mandolin and has a warm, folksy feel. The band also includes pure Tex-Mex tracks and songs sung in Spanish on the album, such as “Poquito para Aqui.” Indeed, jumping from Neil Young and Crazy Horse-style rock to Latin-tinged world music, “Gates of Gold” is a display of the many channels of sound the band has pursued over the decades. But they are always looking for something new to keep it fresh.
“I’d say it’s pretty much exactly the record we set out to make,” Berlin says. “We were able to mine a few ideas from a few years back that weren’t quite ready for fruition, and we came up with a few new ones we are quite fond of. It doesn’t get one bit easier to make records that don’t sound like our past efforts, but I think this one pulls that off.”
Roots rock with cultural diversity: That is the essence of Los Lobos, a band that has found a sweet spot in two languages.
“I don’t think we’ve ever really worried about it (pursuing genres in our music) with the possible exception of ‘Kiko,'” he says. “We’ve always simply tried to make the best record we could at each juncture of our careers and thought that somehow there would be an audience for it somewhere.”