Los Lobos: Not Fade Away
It’s Friday night at the Door Community Auditorium in Fish Creek, Wis. This small, scenic Northwoods town, on the shore of Lake Michigan, is a far cry from Los Lobos’ gritty East LA beginnings.
After 37 years together, Los Lobos continues to play about a hundred dates per year, ranging from fancy concert halls to rough and tumble bars, from The Tonight Show to A Prairie Home Companion, from state fairs to The White House. The band is currently supporting its new back-to-the-basics album—its fourteenth—titled Tin Can Trust, released just a few days after the gig.
Later, during the show, guitarist/singer Cesar Rosas tells the audience how nice it is to play here for the first time, then immediately backpedals: “Have we played here before?” The room was in fact new for the band and has previously hosted such legends as Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Chubby Checker and Ray Charles, among others.
A little more than an hour before show time, guitarist/lyricist Louie Pérez and adjunct drummer Cougar Estrada are sitting on a couch in the backstage lounge surfing the Internet and talking about their ancestry. None of the other band members are around. Meanwhile, the group’s small road crew is sound checking.
I can find neither singer/guitarist David Hidalgo nor keyboard/saxophonist Steve Berlin for a scheduled, pre-show interview. The band’s tour manager is confident that it will still come together, somehow. (As it turns out, this is something of a recurring mantra for the band).
A few minutes later, Berlin walks in with a small bag, after a flight delay while traveling from Portland, Ore., where he lives with his family. And Hildalgo is soon located at the pizza joint and bar across the street where he’s run into friends. Berlin and I head across the street to meet up with Hildago. It’s less than an hour before official show time and no one seems to be in a hurry to do anything.
While most people assume that the band began with its 1984 breakthrough How Will the Wolf Survive? the three-time Grammy winners actually got their start in 1973 when they hooked up in high school. The original four members, children of working class parents—Hildago, Rosas, Pérez and bassist Conrad Lozano (Steve Berlin joined in 1983.)—grew up in East LA. At home, they heard cumbias, norteños and other music from Mexico. Yet, the youngsters were inspired by rock and roll, Chicano R&B and brown-eyed soul bands of the ‘50s and early-‘60s.
According to Hidalgo, a few weeks after the Fish Creek gig, “Out of [those influences] came, Cannibal & The Headhunters, The Premiers and others in East LA. They were recording and having regional hits. There were bands everywhere. My brother was in a band. Every other block had a band.”
One day, Los Lobos decided to learn a traditional Latino song as a birthday present for somebody’s mom. The music had always been a part of life while growing up, but learning this song was a whole new experience. It allowed the band to expand its boundaries and bring its Latino roots more firmly into the band’s consciousness. The ability to play such a wide variety of music also helped them get work early on.
“In those days, if you played a wedding, you had to play current hits—cumbias, boleros, folk songs and then a jazz tune,” Hidalgo adds. “You learn to play everything. That’s how we came up. It developed our taste in music. We’re sort of a wedding band that made good, but louder.”
The band’s 1978’s debut, Del Este de Los Angeles, which featured all Spanish language tunes, was met with indifference, perhaps out of step with the late-‘70s Los Angeles music scene, which was in the throes of the punk movement.
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