There’s a new four-CD retrospective containing 86 tracks, clocking in at five hours, spanning a dozen albums by one of the greatest bands in rock history. These guys reveal deep roots without pickling them in formaldehyde, are eclectic masters rather than mere dabblers, and are old farts who are still cutting-edge but never trendy. The band features multiple vocalists but is always identifiable, has one of the strongest songwriting duos in rock as well as a third tunesmith who sometimes outshines the others, and benefits from journeyman guitar work that never resorts to lick spewage.
No, I’m not talking about the Beatles; I’m talking about the pride of East Los Angeles, Los Lobos. If it seems sacrilegious to mention those two bands in the same sentence, Rhino’s beautiful El Cancionero – Mas y Mas makes a pretty strong argument to the contrary. And when one considers that Slash/Warner already released a retrospective of sorts – 1993’s two-disc Just Another Band From East L.A. – A Collection, which doesn’t diminish the punch of Cancionero in the least – the lofty position that Louie Perez, David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, and Steve Berlin occupy comes into perspective. In fact, another equally respectable multi-disc set could be culled from what didn’t make it onto either of these.
Oddly enough, even though Los Lobos have always been close to my heart since I first saw them opening for the Blasters in 1983 (one of those light-bulb-going-off-in-your-head experiences), this is one of the few compilations where the first impression isn’t a laundry list of glaring omissions. Even though some of my favorites aren’t included – such as “Emily” and “Whiskey Trail” from The Neighborhood – I can’t find fault with any of the choices made by producer Gary Stewart (with a lot of involvement from the band).
Formed from various Top 40 bands in East L.A., Los Lobos “unplugged” in 1973 (before that was considered a “career move”), and began playing traditional Mexican music on a variety of stringed instruments. Their gigs were mostly weddings, backyard parties and quinceaneras, and in 1977 they pressed up a few 12″ pieces of vinyl titled Los Lobos Del Este De Los Angeles (Just Another Band From East L.A.) (not to be confused with the aforementioned mini-box) – long a collector’s item and recently reissued on CD by Hollywood Records. Disc 1 opens with a version of “Guantanamera” from that debut album that makes you forget that the Sandpipers ever existed and reveals that, along with Hidalgo and Rosas (the band’s co-lead vocalists), the usually silent bassist Lozano is also a superb singer (before the ride is over, you’ll also discover that drummer Perez is a more-than-capable singer and guitarist, that guitarist/accordionist Hidalgo is a first-rate drummer, that saxophonist Berlin doubles on keyboards and harmonica, etc., etc., mas y mas).
By 1981 Los Lobos had incorporated electric instruments, a drum kit, Tex-Mex conjunto, and rock and roll (including their teenage forefather Ritchie Valens), and became part of the Hollywood rockabilly/punk club scene. Also, the songwriting of Hidalgo and Perez began to mature, with David putting music to, and then singing, Louie’s romantic, philosophical lyrics. Meanwhile, southpaw guitarist Rosas was alternately growling his self-penned blues-rockers and crooning beautiful traditional standards in Spanish.
To say that these guys are multi-talented or many-faceted is like saying Nolan Ryan threw hard. Homing in on just the guitar aspect of the band – which, like everything about Los Lobos is a small but potent sliver of the whole – we find the same qualities that make the band diverse but unified, varied but unique. And both Hidalgo and Rosas are capable of switching from distorted crunch (“Don’t Worry Baby”) to aching blues bends (“Is This All There Is”) to chimey rhythm (“I Got Loaded”) to beautifully ornamental acoustic melodies (“Little King Of Everything”) to out-and-out psychedelic wail (their PBS special rendition of the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”).
What becomes apparent the more you listen to them is that they have still only shown some of the cards in their hand. While they’ve already produced two bonafide masterpieces, 1984’s How Will The Wolf Survive? and 1992’s Kiko, they’ve yet to peak or plateau; their best work is not behind them. And when the boys’ batteries need recharging, they splinter into the experimental Latin Playboys, then just as quickly morph into the world’s greatest barrio party band (well, the second greatest), Los Super Seven.
The five bandmates are now hovering around age 50, and four of them have been together as a band for 27 years (latecomer Berlin has been with them a mere 17 years). But each album proves that they still have a lot to say, that they’re still progressing – a claim precious few artists can make.
That third “dream” box I mentioned earlier? Let’s get started, Rhino!
This review originally appeared in VG‘s March ’01 issue.