The Wolves Survive

On the heels of one of its best releases, Los Lobos endure as a group whose music matters

They didn't expect tears.

It was 1973, and David Hidalgo, Louie Perez, Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano — not long out of high school in the Chicano enclave of East Los Angeles — decided to learn a handful of Mexican folk songs to, as Hidalgo puts it, "serenade our moms."

They were comparatively worldly kids who played in rock bands and listened to free-form FM radio where the jocks tried to out-eclectic each other. Traditional Mexican music had been relegated to background music in their homes. But during the serenade, their mothers started crying. "It really hit 'em," Hidalgo recalls. "It was like, 'Shit we're just jokin', ya know?'"

It turned out to be no joke. That little serenade gave birth to Los Lobos, who, over three decades, have established themselves as one of the truly venerable American bands. Their polyglot blend of rock, blues, R&B, country and traditional Latin elements have rendered them, if rarely hit-makers, a much-loved cult act and long-time critical darling.

At first, though, it was all about south-of-the-border folk music. "Our first gig was at a VFW, a fundraiser," Hidalgo says. "We had long hair and beards, looked more like Canned Heat than a Mexican folk band. All the women brought us food, and the adults and kids were all dancing together. We'd never experienced that. After that, we got further into it, and the music was a lot deeper than we'd imagined."

The quartet, armed with acoustic guitars, an accordion, a 12-string bajo sexto and other traditional instruments, played a series of educational concerts in California schools, gained some popularity and even inspired a few other bands to pick up the torch.

Still, Los Lobos' direction puzzled many of their peers. "The younger people thought we were crazy," Hidalgo recalls. "'Why are you playing that TJ (Tijuana) music? Are you making any money at it?' As a matter of fact, we're not."

The younger folks came around, appreciating Los Lobos' efforts at raising awareness of centuries-old Mexican culture. Then, one fateful day, Los Lobos crossed the river from East L.A. to play a gig in the city's burgeoning roots-punk scene. "Our very first show was with PiL," Hidalgo says, referring to John Lydon's post-Sex Pistols outfit. "And [the crowd] almost killed us. We stopped playing as soon as the bottles started flying."

Soon after, Los Lobos "eased our way back into electric music, and we found out how important Ritchie Valens was to us," Hidalgo says, speaking of the first ever Mexican-American rock 'n' roll star, who died in a 1959 plane crash with Buddy Holly.

A decade later, Los Lobos performed the soundtrack to the Valens biopic La Bamba, and the title song reached No. 1. Los Lobos were stars of a sort. To capitalize on their newfound fortune, the band followed up with La Pistola y El Corazon, a collection of acoustic Mexican folk songs, which eked its way to No. 179 on the Billboard album chart.

Huh? According to industry custom, Los Lobos were duty-bound to back up their commercial breakthrough with music designed to keep the momentum going. But the band wasn't having it. "It was just that we became known for that one soundtrack," Hidalgo says. "Our audience grew, but it was kind of superficial. They didn't know anything else about us. We'd play all of our other stuff and the crowd would be like, 'What band is this? Play "Oh Donna."' So it was frustrating even as it opened some doors for us."

Los Lobos put the La Bamba songs on the shelf for many years, but finally, Hidalgo says, "We got over it. We'll play 'Let's Go' and 'La Bamba,' especially if it's a family-type show, at a fair or festival."

After nearly two decades, any Bamba-esque stigma seems to have worn off. Hidalgo recounts, amused: "We were entering Canada and this young customs agent asked us what we do, and we said, 'We're musicians, Los Lobos.' Nothing. We said, 'You ever see La Bamba?' 'No.' We were like, 'That's usually our ace.'"

This year, Los Lobos released their 16th album, The Town and the City (Mammoth), and it happens to be among the three or four best of their storied career. This is fairly remarkable, because the band is at a stage when the songwriting tank is usually running pretty low.

"There's only so much knowledge that you have," muses Hidalgo, who writes the tunes to go with Perez's lyrics. "You'll find yourself coming up with something and thinking 'That's pretty cool,' and, 'Wait a minute, that was on the last record.' I think you learn to go with whatever happens. We'll call it a style. We do have self-imposed limitations. We didn't paint ourselves into a corner, but the music is still based on traditional forms."

It happens that Los Lobos' palette of traditional forms is wider than most, and they use a big bag of colors on The Town and the City: the sonic experimentalism first heard on the band's 1992 masterpiece Kiko; a handful of songs that appropriate and mutate Mexican folk; a passel of seductive tunes in a sultry rhythm-and-blues mode that showcase Hidalgo's soulful tenor; and a handful of bouncy, blues-based numbers.

The Town and the City is the clarion call of a mature rock band that has included the same four members since its inception. (Keyboardist/saxophonist Steve Berlin joined in the late '70s.)

Of the band's longevity, Hidalgo says, "It comes down to friendship, as corny as that sounds. We were friends before we started the band. We'd go and hear each other's bands play, and hang out. It was a good way to get free beer. Like any relationship, at times we'd get pissed off. Sometimes we have to isolate ourselves, stay out of each other's way. But I think when it comes down to it, we all agree it's something worth fighting for."