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A grimmer America: Los Lobos turn a corner

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As Latino members of their east Los Angeles community, the founding members of Los Lobos--bandleader/multiinstrumentalist David Hidalgo, bassist Conrad Lozano, drummer Louie Perez, and guitarist Cesar Rosas--have always stood both within and somewhat outside U.S. culture. Before Kiko was released last year, this status was manifest in their music, a spicy, robust gumbo of traditional American forms--roadhouse blues, hill-country folk, jazzy R & B, and honky-tonk country and western--into which they mixed traditional Mexican songs, the occasional polka, and dollops of gospel, bluegrass, zydeco, and whatever. In much of this music they made an attempt to reconcile a belief in America's promise with the way the country repeatedly failed that promise, an effort that marked Los Lobos as something more than the best roots-rock band around.

They were one hell of a party band. Playing their music with an energy and drive reminiscent of the early-80s punk scene that gave them their start, Los Lobos performing live routinely burned the place down, leaving their audiences cheering and sweat-soaked, ears ringing. The first time I saw Los Lobos in concert, at the Riviera Theatre in the summer of 1987 on their By the Light of the Moon tour, I was struck by how they made the music completely available. This exhilarating immediacy, I suspect, is the result of the group's origins as a wedding band: playing weddings, the band's job was to help people celebrate, not call attention to themselves. The lesson stuck. In their most recent concert here, again at the Riv a few weeks back, Los Lobos were as immediate as ever but sought common ground between the raucous, barn-burning music of their past and Kiko's more contemplative sound.

Even at their most exuberant, the songs Hidalgo and Perez write together--the vast majority of the band's repertoire--reflect the authors' thoughtful, frequently troubled view of life in the United States. The charging, saxophone-fueled "Evangeline" (which kick-started the band's marathon encores) describes a 17-year-old girl's departure from home from the perspective of a concerned and somewhat resentful parent. "Will the Wolf Survive?," the band's anthem, details not only their struggle for survival and dignity but that of all Latino immigrants and, by extension, the American working class. "One Time One Night" finds our country's landscape marked by death, injury, and loneliness. But if the loneliness and disappointments of women, the precariousness of the lives of children, and the destructive temptations of men are their themes, Los Lobos also celebrate the joys of neighbors and family, as on "Angel Dance," the glorious lullaby that closed their set.

It seems that Hidalgo and Perez see the United States as an immigrant might, with a sense of and belief in its promise. On How Will the Wolf Survive? such an understanding informs the tender, lovely "A Matter of Time," in which a husband leaves his wife and baby behind to seek work, saying good-bye with a mixture of doubt, worry, determination, and hope. During their Riviera performance, this stirring vision of a country filled with opportunity came through in the barbed guitar Hidalgo played over Rosas's strumming on "One Time One Night" and in the exclamatory drum flourish followed by surging chords and darting lead lines in "Will the Wolf Survive?"--even at a reduced tempo, it sounded like a freight train barreling through the countryside. On the craggy, lumbering "Down on the Riverbed," Steve Berlin's scuzzy keyboards collided with Perez and percussionist Victor Bisetti's drums, and Hidalgo and bassist Lozano's vocals collided, charging the drama in which a riverside marriage proposal forges a formidable permanent bond.

On these and many other Hidalgo-Perez compositions pre-Kiko, the sweeping, expansive music with its traditional roots seems to embody the American dream of prosperity, freedom, peace, and justice that the lyrics find so tragically betrayed. Hidalgo's clear, lovely tenor mediates the difference with profound compassion and hope. With an understanding rooted not in the moment but in enduring truths, Los Lobos express for both good and ill what this country is and what it means to be of it.

Perhaps the increasingly grim realities of life in this country--homelessness, drugs, gang violence, the spread of AIDS--led Los Lobos, with the help of producer Mitchell Froom, to craft Kiko, with its dark, pensive sound full of exotic percussion, strange audio effects, tinges of late-60s psychedelia, and lush textures. The hopefulness I once heard in Hidalgo's voice is gone, replaced by the despair and isolation of songs like "Whiskey Trail" and "Just a Man." Even the rollicking good humor usually found on Rosas's blues and R & B contributions gives way to an overriding sense of doom on his "Wicked Rain." Hidalgo and Perez seem to take respite or refuge from this desperation by turning their attention not only away from America but from the corporeal world altogether, looking to the spiritual realm envisioned in "Wake Up Dolores," "Saint Behind the Glass," and the rest of the record's circling nocturnes. The music on previous Los Lobos albums, buoyed by T-Bone Burnett's warm, open, and clear production, pointed outward, but Kiko, densely arranged and cool as a misty autumn evening, beckons inward, asking the listener to fall down the rabbit hole and become enveloped in its mysterious sound tapestries.

Brimming with innovative ideas, Kiko is obviously a creative breakthrough for Los Lobos. I especially like the way woodwind player Berlin, too often confined in the past to gutbucket saxophone solos, is fully integrated in this music--providing colorful instrumental breaks like the one on the bridge of "Wake Up Dolores," carrying the rhythm on "Angels With Dirty Faces," or shattering all the windows with his blaring on "Rio de Tenampa." Yet these new sounds seem to come at the cost of Hidalgo and Perez's vision of this country, and that price seems to me too high. Strains of that vision remain in many of the record's songs, but they're muted, less immediate. The vision appears with its old clarity only on "Two Janes," and every time I listen to that song I'm reassured that the understanding it contains is precious and shouldn't be abandoned.

It also seems to me, though, that if Los Lobos are trying to participate in this country's culture as musicians and citizens, to take advantage of our culture's musical and social opportunities, then Kiko may not abandon the inquiry into American life but embody it. Still drawing together such diverse strands of American music as country, blues, and R & B with elements from Latino culture, Los Lobos have combined them in new, suggestive ways, not jacking up traditional forms (as they've done before) but using the studio to color them differently. And by creating something new and unclassifiable, the band live out the distinctly American promise of self-creation that their earlier music only envisioned. Pushing the boundaries of their music, they test the country's possibilities, exploring what America has to offer, how far one can travel in it, and what adventures one can find on the way.

But Kiko has certainly necessitated a change in the band's live performances. Before the encores in their 24-song performance at the Riv, Los Lobos exchanged their high-octane rambunctiousness for comparatively subdued musical finesse, emphasizing dynamics and textures over simple, punchy rock and roll. This shift was apparent by their third song, "Don't Worry Baby." On How Will the Wolf Survive? the song is all slamming drums and guitar chords, searing blues licks and growling vocals. In the past the band has used it as combustible material for barn-burning finales, but at the Riv they reworked it to fit into their set early. They began the song quietly as a mid-tempo blues shuffle, forsaking its kicking-down-the-door opening, at least partly in homage to opening act John Lee Hooker, then built the intensity until finally Berlin blared out the work's signature guitar break on sax, climaxing the song with a wallop.

"Don't Worry Baby" represents Los Lobos' rowdy side; its author, Rosas, is easily Los Lobos' most recognizable member with his dark glasses, goatee, and slicked-back black hair. Rosas provides Los Lobos with a few blues or R & B numbers per record, which are consistently the band's most viscerally appealing, the ones that energize concert crowds. Midway through this set Rosas's "My Baby's Gone," a jumpy number he consistently dedicates to James Brown (though it sounds like a Son Seals blues to me), stirred up a becalmed crowd with its clipped, biting phrases superbly sung. None of Rosas's songs remotely approach the depth of the Hidalgo-Perez compositions, but their virtues--good humor, rollicking enthusiasm, great riffs--are no less valuable in their own way.

But it was only when they performed three Tex-Mex rockers from their debut ep, And a Time to Dance, that Los Lobos really harked back to their uproarious past concerts. With Hidalgo on accordion, you could almost taste the Tabasco sauce flavoring "Ay te Dejo en San Antonio" and "Anselma," but the songs seemed out of place here, as if the band had thrown them into the set more as crowd pleasers than because they still enjoyed playing them. These two came just before "Kiko and the Lavender Moon"--a mysterious and beautiful piece of ballroom music composed by Duke Ellington, performed by a mariachi band, heard in a dream--and when it was over the band tore into "Let's Say Goodnight," the third song from And a Time to Dance. The contrast between their oldest and newest work made it seem they were merely offering a nod to the past.

Los Lobos has shifted the emphasis from two-guitar drive to a more luxuriant, fleshed-out sound. The richly layered arrangements showcase Perez and Bisetti's percussion fireworks, Berlin's keyboards, and Lozano's expressive bass playing. Lozano is my favorite Lobo in the same way that Horace Grant is my favorite Chicago Bull--they're not glamorous but they get the job done--and Lozano's increased prominence was one of the Riviera show's delights. After occupying the sidelines in past shows he moved to center stage, and his rootlike lines held together and propelled much of the music, especially "Dream in Blue," "Short Side of Nothing," and "Kiko and the Lavender Moon." He was a joy to watch, his ponytailed head bobbing in time to the music, a wide smile across his face.

Early in the show the band's new approach on "Short Side of Nothing" and "When the Circus Comes" felt dense and cluttered, however. This was especially unfortunate on the gorgeous "When the Circus Comes," perhaps Hidalgo's loveliest, most heart-wrenching song. Then "One Time One Night" jelled into a rolling stream of intertwining guitars, which Hidalgo concluded with a warbling, chirping solo that called Jerry Garcia to mind. While the song left the dance crowd still--an uncommon sight at Los Lobos concerts--the musicianship on "One Time One Night" generated considerable excitement; and as the show progressed, Los Lobos explored the dramatic possibilities inherent in Kiko's material. They pushed the tempo on "Just a Man," keyboards, drums, and vocals tugging against each other while Rosas's guitar tore through the middle. On "Peace" the group fell together into a roiling, turbulent whole--Berlin's blaring sax, Rosas's lava guitar waves, Lozano's booming bass, and the beehive swirl of percussion--while Hidalgo unleashed a guitar fusillade of late-60s psychedelic blues-metal. They made "Wicked Rain" a shuffling up-tempo boogie full of echoing Hendrixian guitars, with Berlin leading the song's staccato conclusion. These jams packed a breathtaking sonic wallop; and Hidalgo, closing "Angel Dance," played a solo that seemed carved from the face of the Andes.

The concert was a mixed blessing. Kiko's bold new music and the band's swirling, atmospheric improvisations come at the expense of the rugged, blue-collar character Los Lobos once had--the guts, muscle, and sweat in their earlier, simpler music. The regular portion of their Riviera set repeatedly impressed on me how the band has matured, and while I admire and appreciate that development, I also miss the more direct, visceral pleasures of their old rave-ups. "Don't Worry Baby" is hardly the band's finest song, certainly not its loveliest song, and nowhere near its most complex song, but it kicks like a mule. With its dark lyrics and surging, reckless tempo, it's filled with the promise of good times and the hint of danger--in the classic rock-and-roll tradition. In that sense it's the band's best song. That music may not seem substantial or important in comparison with Kiko, but like other straightforward rock and roll it summons delight, playfulness, even joy.

Having balanced its old and new material throughout the set, Los Lobos let loose with a barrage of roof-raising songs for the encores. The band followed "Evangeline" with an abbreviated version of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone," until Lozano stepped to a mike, counted four, and they launched into "I Can't Understand," the hard-swinging blues Rosas wrote with the late Willie Dixon. This was party music simple and direct, a joyful noise for drinking, singing, and dancing. Now 21 songs and nearly two hours into the concert, Perez and Hidalgo joined forces for an improvisational guitar interplay that began a breezy, breakneck version of "Bertha," the song Los Lobos recorded for Deadicated, the Grateful Dead tribute record. Spiraling and sweeping along like a coltish spring breeze, the song seemed to go on forever but ended too soon.

Then they came back for a second encore, performing "Volver," another Tex-Mex rocker sung in Spanish, and in a nod to their psychedelic influences, John Lennon's "Tomorrow Never Knows"--a completely surprising cover selection powered by Perez and Bisetti's drumming. I danced so hard my stomach ached three days later. I still want them to play at my wedding.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dennis Keeley.

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