Los Lobos was in a good mood Thursday night at the Bilheimer Capitol Theater. That’s important. In the band's 47th year with the same original members—all in their 60s—Los Lobos remains a committed road dog. How the guys feel on any given night matters.
The East L.A. quintet—plus a younger ace drummer who Los Lobos seems intent on keeping anonymous—works without a setlist and lets its shows unfold according to whim. Thursday night opened with David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas and Louie Perez on acoustic guitars. But rather than playing a succession of Tex-Mex-style tunes sung in Spanish—as they did this time last year at the same venue—the group delved heartily into rock ‘n’ roll and blues.
It opened with “How Will the Wolf Survive?,” the title song from the band’s first major label album in 1984. The tune set a nice tone. Los Lobos pushed the tempo with a troika of numbers: Ritchie Valens’ “Come on, Let’s Go” and Rosas’s “Don’t Worry Baby” and “My Baby’s Gone.” The sequence showed unequivocally that you don’t have to plug in to rock. The trio of guitarists all played formidable solos unique to themselves—Hidalgo smooth and melodic; Rosas spiky and percussive; Perez (the band’s original drummer) with a noted Spanish tinge. Keyboardist/saxophonist Steve Berlin was in a soloing mood too, and contributed a series of spirited breaks on baritone saxophone.
You could tell that the acoustic axes felt good in the musicians’ hands, so they kept them strapped on. An extended version of the creeping ballad “Just a Man,” from the 1992 masterpiece Kiko, was hypnotically sublime.
Los Lobos then took a sharp turn into “Cumbia Raza,” the evening’s only Spanish-sung tune. The usually strict ushers allowed a few couples to dance in the aisles. “Evangeline” and “Set Me Free” followed, all zestily rockin’, but by now I’m thinking, “OK, fellas, time to grab the electrics.”
Fifty minutes in, they finally did. The band eased into a loose funk groove that evolved into The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” which inevitably gave way to Rosas’s “I Can’t Understand.” A version of the Allman Brothers’ version of Elmore James’s “One Way Out” juiced the crowd and had it singing, “‘Cause there’s a man down there, might be your man, I don’t know.”
A raucous “Georgia Slide” further ramped up the energy. Los Lobos was cooking. Then a buzz kill. Los Lobos invited its opening act, The Commonheart, onstage. The large aggregation from Pittsburgh plays a kind of overheated, peace-and-love R&B, with a long-bearded frontman who sounds like Joe Cocker took a quick hit of helium. The band—I caught the last half of its set—is not to my taste. We’ll leave it at that.
With some 15 people on stage, it took a few minutes to get organized. A version of Buddy Miles’ “Them Changes” provided good, sloppy fun. Then, disaster. The mixed ensemble stumbled into Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” a song that Los Lobos regularly incorporates into its sets. The band handed the first verse to The Commonheart’s frontman. He couldn’t find the key; he mumbled the lyrics; it wasn’t clear that he really knew the tune. Hidalgo stepped to the mic and tried to rescue matters, but it was a lost cause. Yet they bumbled on, butchering an iconic song, stripping it of all its stately elegance. Marvin Gaye did a quarter turn in his grave and covered his ears.
Certainly some redemption was called for, and Los Lobos seemed to know it. The band emerged for an encore and absolutely lit into Neil Young’s stomping “Cinnamon Girl.” The band followed with a genuinely committed “La Bamba,” including its usual detour into The Rascals’ “Good Lovin’,” capped with a big, bluesy guitar crescendo.
Random anecdote and musings
As I was idling in the halls avoiding The Commonheart’s set, I wandered over to the Los Lobos merch table. “Man’s lookin’ cool in his John Coltrane T-shirt,” the vendor quipped. “The coolest motherfucker here,” I replied with a grin.
“I should wear a Los Lobos T-shirt to a jazz concert,” I said, and the vendor nodded in agreement. “Problem is, I can’t find one that fits. They’re too big and coarse, with long baggy sleeves that almost reach your elbow. I like mine to hug a little.” The merch guy nodded, feeling my pain. Los Lobos is one of my favorite bands and I’d love to represent. “We have an audience that, um, tends to run larger,” he explained. “We can’t make fitted shirts. They wouldn’t sell.”
I shrugged and thanked him. As I turned to walk away, he said, “Sorry, man.”
We had a moment. That rarely happens with grizzled, often jaded, touring merch guys.
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