Like the characters in many of their songs, Los Lobos remain humble but proud.
“Thank you for still liking us,” guitarist César Rojas will often tell audiences.
The original five Wolves not only have survived: They are at a high point artistically as they begin a year-long celebration of what will be a half-century of performing when they come to Kean University on Feb. 18, 2023.
Not bad for “just another band” that started out playing mariachi for weddings and barrio parties in East L.A.
The cross-cultural multiple Grammy winners would've been a fairly sizable success on their own even before the overwhelming response to their rousing remake of the party staple "La Bamba."
The title song to a 1987 biopic about singer Richie Valens caught the ears of a mass audience in a way that equally talented but lesser-known California peers such as X and Dave Alvin (with and without the Blasters) hadn't.
Valens was the first Chicano rock star, a true pioneer. But his massively popular hit has less to do with Los Lobos’ sound than just about any other number in their expansive repertoire.
It's no coincidence that, rather than capitalizing on their massive commercial success, Los Lobos instead came back with "La Pistola y El Corazón," a tribute to Tejano and mariachi that won the 1989 Grammy for Best Mexican-American Performance.
Onstage, Los Lobos slides 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.
At their same time, they stir a distinctive gumbo of serenades, cakewalks, syncopated rumbas, polkas(!) and habanera rhythms that no other commercial crossover performer has ever matched.
Rojas still has the Ray Bans and Billy Gibbons 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 guitar leads.
And while both make excellent twin towers, Los Lobos wouldn’t exist without guitarist Louie Pérez, the effervescent Conrad Lozano – always in pocket on bass — or the Dostoevsky-bearded Steve Berlin on sax.
Alfredo Ortiz has also more than capably taken the skins since long-time drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez decided to return to Mexico two years ago.
Los Lobos 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.
It helps that the group’s four original Latinos have known, loved and encouraged one another like brothers since high school. It also pretty much makes them a bar band no matter how large or small the venue.
No doubt that's why SiriusXM chose Los Lobos to christen an "Outlaw Country West Cruise" from Los Angeles to Cabo and Ensenada earlier this month. The band played a "sail-out" set that had thousands of passengers stomping and cheering on the pool deck as the Norwegian Jewel left the harbor.
How's this for an opening round: The band shot off the dock with "Don't Worry Baby," "Evangeline" and "Love Special Delivery" (a 1966 chestnut by Thee Midnighters) before kicking into "Will the Wolf Survive?"
Highlights included "Chuco's Cumbia," the Cajun-styled "Dream In Blue," and "Kiko and the Lavender Moon," as well as the standard sing-along "Volver, Volver," before closing with another furious run:
Valens's "Come On Let's Go," "Shakin' Shakin' Shakes" and a seamless trio of "I Got Loaded," Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" and the Grateful Dead's "Bertha."
Bands that last this long can sometimes lose their center -- or, worse, rust out. They stop listening to themselves, forget where they came from, play most songs by rote.
The members of Los Lobos have more than proven themselves natural successors to The Dead and The Band, both of whose spirits can be heard through much of their canon.
Los Lobos haven’t lost any of their edge, skill or ability to get you to muévete, producing nourishment to both the heart and the hips.
It’s what still keeps them alive.
Los Lobos will be in the Wilkins Theater at Kean University in Union, NJ, on Saturday, February 18 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $40-$70 and can be bought at keanstage.com or by contacting the Box Office at (908) 737-7469. It's open Mon-Tues from 10 a.m to 5 p.m. and Wed-Fri from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
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