Ask your music-loving friend, record-store clerk, or average Joe on the street which band or artist they think has a finger on the pulse of American rock 'n' roll more than anyone else, and you're not likely to hear the name Los Lobos often. Surely, the likes of Dylan, Springsteen, the Allmans, even John Hiatt, James Brown, and Elvis represent that particular confluence of elements that instantly says "American rock 'n' roll" to the ear.
But looking at their expansive body of work that now spans 35 years, it can easily be argued that Los Lobos epitomizes rock 'n' roll more than anyone.
Not unlike Neil Young and The Band, their southward-gazing musical cousins from Canada, Los Lobos somehow manages to capture the quintessential yet intangible character traits of the music that is native to us. When you listen to The Band, for example, you get the sense that being able to view the American cultural landscape from a slight distance somehow enables an artist to render it more authentically.
Mesa Arts Center
Los Lobos is scheduled to perform on Saturday, February 16.
"I think that's true," says Steve Berlin, Los Lobos' keyboardist/baritone saxophonist. "We just approach it from a much broader place. Even in the beginning, when we were playing a lot more folkloric stuff, we used to get a lot of shit from these folk and blues purists. We just used to laugh at 'em. What's the point? It's never gonna be fuckin' Muddy Waters anyway, so you might as well just stop — or adapt. We've always been reverent, but it's not made out of glass. It's yours to screw around with it just the same way that Muddy Waters, Captain Beefheart, and the Rolling Stones screwed around with it. Everybody sort of builds their own ship out of the pieces of wood."
Los Lobos, however, benefits from having one foot in and one foot out of mainstream America. The fact that four-fifths of the band is of Mexican descent gives the band a particular musical advantage that no one else appears to have put to use with such skill. When Los Lobos started in 1973, their repertoire consisted of traditional Mexican norteño folk music. Though this music may seem "native" to the band members, it's important to remember that they played it incorrectly at first. As teenagers, Los Lobos had been exposed to Mexican music somewhat distantly, via their parents, but they were more into rock 'n' roll. This is a band, after all, that was fired from its first gig for playing a Cream cover too loud.
In fact, Los Lobos emerged — get this — as Southern California was in the grip of punk, post-punk, and New Wave. The first time Berlin ever saw the band (he didn't join until 10 years after they formed), they were opening for Public Image Ltd., and they endured a hail of spit from the audience. Berlin, who was already an established session player at that point and was beginning to make inroads to what would become a distinguished, eclectic career as a producer, credits the band's determination in not leaving the stage.
"Anybody in the position was going to get a load of shit," he recalls. "It was kind of a dark moment in L.A. music history. Here we had this beautiful punk-rock experiment that had been going on for years, starting with inspired musicians like John Doe, Henry Rollins, the Germs, and all those people. What started out to be a very exciting and alive music framework had spread its way to Orange County, so you had these really, really obnoxious Orange County assholes — kind of the guys who are Green Day fans now — and they had their own orthodoxy. But it wasn't the end of anything, it was just sort of like, 'Oh, boy.'"
Nowadays, Los Lobos can veer from a Traffic cover to acoustic Mexican folk to country swing to Tex-Mex to rockabilly to the experimental modernism of their '90s albums as if all those modes of expression are second nature to them. It should come as no surprise that the band has finally begun to venture into sociopolitical subject matter.
The band's latest album, The Town and the City, revolves around immigration, which, as Berlin sees it, lies at the foundation of this country's history and continues to factor heavily into the rhythm of its daily life. Main songwriters Louie Peréz and David Hidalgo approached the new songs from a decidedly more personal space. Hidalgo, in recent video footage on the making of the album, even talks about crying over one of the narratives. For his part, Berlin has no trouble relating to the material.
"You can't really live in California without feeling the tug of what goes on there with the immigrant experience and how ridiculous the Republican line is — Giuliani and all those idiots," he says. "It has no basis in reality. It's completely hallucinatory. That's where a large part of the discourse is.
"You have one side saying the Earth is flat, as if you were going to send 12 million people back on a boat somehow. If you have any kind of conscience at all, you realize it's not just the Hispanic immigration story. It's everybody's. I'm second-generation American just like the guys in Los Lobos," says Berlin, who is of Russian-Jewish descent. "If any of the rules they're trying to apply now were in effect 60 years ago, we wouldn't be here. You don't have to be Mexican to feel that story. And we're not exactly pontificating, mind you. We try to make it a cinematic thing."
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Berlin says that when he crossed paths with the band, he'd never envisioned himself playing Latin American folk music. So how was he able to make the adjustment, musically?
"A lot of it, I would say with all due modesty, is the way I was brought up musically in Philadelphia," he says. "Versatility and adaptability were traits that you basically had to have. On any given day, you'd be playing blues or jazz or Philly soul. Philadelphia was a great incubator for that because there was very little parochialism. So when it came time to learn folkloric or Latin music, it was, like, 'Okay, one more thing I haven't tried.' I have to pay a lot of respect to the people who taught me on my way up. Just the simple fact that they let me play with them was a pretty big deal to me."
And how daunting was it for Berlin to join Los Lobos, a band whose members were childhood friends?
"I wouldn't call it daunting," he says. "They'd laugh about stuff that I wasn't part of, but for me, the music outweighs everything. It was so musically rewarding, I figured I'd learn the stories and be able to tell them firsthand in a couple of years anyway, and now I can. It's as if I was there anyway, because I've heard them so many bloody times. You know, every person sort of makes their own personal mythology anyway."