IN TUNE: “Thank you for still liking us,” Los Lobos guitarist César Rojas told the sold-out crowd last night during the first of three Christmas weekend gigs at City Winery.
The original Wolves not only have survived: They may be at their highest career point artistically. Not bad for “just another band” that started out 40 years ago last month playing mariachi for weddings and barrio parties in East L.A.
It’s been a whirlwind year of nonstop touring – full of festivals, special gigs and 20th-anniversary live performances of the majestic “Kiko” album. Los Lobos also recently opened several shows for Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
The band originally planned to perform an acoustic program called “Disconnected” last night. But that got tossed so they could record a “Live at City Winery” special — another coup for Manhattan’s best live music venue (The cross-cultural three-time Grammy winners, who’ve played New Year’s Eve at the club the past two years, are doing the same this year at City Winery’s new Chicago location).
Although technical trouble plagued Rojas much of the night, the MexiChicano masters slid through an eclectic blend of blues, rancheras, samba, soul, folkloric rhythms and roots rock and roll, all of it danceable and none of it ever in a hurry.
The five original Wolves have been joined by jackhammer drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez and percussionist Camilo A. Quinones. They’ve taken the volume down a bit, enriching the distinctive gumbo of serenades, cakewalks, syncopated rumbas, polkas(!) and habanera rhythms that no other band has ever matched.
And like the characters in many of their songs, they remain humble yet proud.
Rojas must sit while playing (sciatica, he said), and he’s traded the soul patch for a goatee, but he still has the Ray Bans and the ZZ Top growl. His soul brother, David Hidalgo, still has the sweet voice – the McCartney/Tilbrook to Cesar’s Lennon/Difford — as well as the chops to fly through leads on his acoustic guitar.
Highlights included the distinctively New Orleans-based “Dream in Blue,” which took on a Grateful Dead-like trippiness, “Chuco’s Cumbia” (I thought I was listening to Ruben Blades), the quirky Tom Waits-via-Prince “Oh Yeah” and a rip-roaring version of Traffic’s “40,000 Headmen,” featuring a flute solo by the musical Swiss Army knife, Steve Berlin.
Like the Blasters, Los Lobos is a true American band, beautifully stirring an array of influences into finely sequenced performances that never fail to keep your interest. And even though the decades together have created a collective intuitiveness, they regularly mix it up so much that Hidalgo uses a set list.
Amid the party music last night, the lovely “oldies” that shimmered and shone included “Will the Wolf Survive?” (no surprise) and “The Hardest Time,” a song that could have been co-penned by Dave Alvin and Lucinda Williams.
Among the personal favorites that didn’t make the cut were “One Night, One Time,” “Evangeline,” and “Don’t Worry Baby.” But they also mercifully left out “La Bamba.”
As the first Chicano rock star, Richie Valens was a pioneer, but his pop hit has less to do with Los Lobos’ sound than just about any other number in their expansive repertoire. The band has essentially become its own musical genre, taking Norteña (or conjunto) and melding it with Alvin’s description of American music – Lousiana boogie, delta blues, country swing and rockabilly, too – using a variety of authentic string and wind instruments, along with Hidalgo’s onyx and pearl accordion.
And while he and Rojas serve as frontmen, Los Lobos wouldn’t exist without former drummer/now full-time guitarist Louie Pérez, the effervescent Conrad Lozano – always in the pocket on bass — or the Dostoevsky-bearded Berlin on keyboards, sax, you-name-it, who began with Alvin and his brother, Phil, in the Blasters, that “other” California punk-Americana band, before joining Los Lobos full time.
Bands that last this long can sometimes lose their center or, worse, rust. They stop listening to themselves, forget where they came from, play most songs by rote.
The Wolves, however, have more than proven themselves natural successors to The Grateful Dead and The Band (multi-influenced multi-instrumentalists themselves), both of whose spirits can be heard through much of their canon. It helps that the group’s four original Latinos have known, loved and encouraged one another, like brothers, since high school.
Los Lobos haven’t lost any of their edge, skill or ability to get you to muévete, producing nourishment for both the heart and the hips.
It’s what still keeps them alive.
They will be at City Winery again tonight and tomorrow. For tickets: LOS LOBOS @ CITY WINERY/NY