When the four Chicano friends who made up Los Lobos ventured out of the familiar environs of East L.A. to open for the Blasters, they didn't expect to find their fifth band member: a Jewish guy from Philly. Blasters saxophonist Steve Berlin watched the opener and by the third song thought, "Oh my God, where the fuck did this come from?"
That night was more than a quarter century ago, and served as Los Lobos' coming out party. They became an instant buzz band on the West Coast roots-punk circuit. "I had literally zero exposure to Mexican music beforehand," Berlin recounted in a phone interview. "I didn't see myself in Latin music; I was more of a blues and jazz guy. But they told me that there was a saxophone tradition in some of their songs, so I learned a few."
The real kicker came the night after the fateful Blasters/Lobos bill. "[Avant-garde jazz master] Ornette Coleman was playing in town," Berlin recalls with a rueful laugh. "I look over and who's there but these [Los Lobos] guys, en masse. We saw each other. 'Holy shit, you're into this too?'"
Although Berlin and his new East L.A. pals - singer-guitarist David Hidalgo, drummer Louie Perez, guitarist-singer Cesar Rosas and bassist Conrad Lozano - didn't formalize their relationship for about another year and a half, they shared the kind of restlessly eclectic tastes that make for perfect bandmates. Besides playing sax and keyboards, Berlin produced several of the band's '80s albums.
Virtually no style has been off limits in the grand career of Los Lobos, a quintet that has not only endured, but continued to make fresh and invigorating music. They've balanced their roots in traditional Mexican sounds with a love for the wide expanse of American music and such arcana as British folk and the jazz avant-garde.
While they still have a traditional record deal with the Disney-owned Hollywood label - their most recent album, The Ride, came out last year - they have increasingly focused on live performance. Los Lobos possess a wide-ranging book of original songs, but they're an accomplished improvisational unit, which endears them to the jam-band crowd. And they have no peer when it comes to cover material. (That was magnificently illustrated during their appearance at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival a few years back, when they closed the show with an incendiary version of Hendrix's "Are You Experienced?".)
The Ride featured a glittering lineup of guest artists that included Elvis Costello, Bobby Womack, Ruben Blades, Richard Thompson and others. In turn, Los Lobos cut a song by each of the contributors and released The Covers EP. The band also released a live CD and DVD from a show at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco. But the best way to soak up the Los Lobos experience is to buy a ticket and see them live.
Several decades on, Los Lobos have never come close to breaking up, Berlin says. "Generally, our approach is that there is no problem too severe that it can't be out-waited," he explains. "We usually let time do its thing, and the problems seem to go away somehow."
Neither are Los Lobos tireless road dogs. "The longest we've ever gone out is for five weeks, and we learned that that's too long," Berlin says. "Three weeks is as much as we can do. Everyone has kids, and I think that's one of the things that has kept us grounded. We've never stayed away."
Berlin says that, when off the road, the members don't spend much time together (he, for one, has lived in the Pacific Northwest since the late '80s, while the others reside in L.A.), save for Hidalgo and Perez, whose families are close.
And when they do resume touring, they don't even schedule so much as a tune-up rehearsal. "None whatsoever," Berlin says. "There's no point in it. Any young band reading this, that's certainly not the way to do it, but for us, doing it this long, the most interesting part is that you really don't exactly know what you're doing. You find a way. Precision is not what we're about - it's that big, sloppy noise."