As a general rule, Los Lobos aren’t given to flights of fancy. Their music is traditionally very down to earth, detailing working class struggles, relationship struggles, and the joy of rising above.
If you want to look for anything remotely fantastical in their music, you have to search long and hard, and chances are you won’t use up all your fingers counting. “One Time, One Night” includes the lines “A quiet voice is singing something to me / An age-old song about the home of the brave”. “River of Fools” envisions “A trio of angels holding candles of light / Guide the ship to an unknown shore / Sad soul riders with arms drawn tight / As they stopped for just one more”. “Colossal Head” begins by borrowing from Little Red Riding Hood: “What big eyes you have / What big lips you have”.
That’s pretty much it, and apart from those lines, the songs don’t really deviate from the Los Lobos real-world template. There’s one album, though, that takes on a glimmer of nighttime and wonder: 1992’s Kiko. Kiko is at once a typical Los Lobos album—full of hard-luck tales and hopes for a better future—but it’s also the only Los Lobos album that might be a little “touched” (as some of our grandmothers might have put it). On this one album, Los Lobos allow more wonder into their lyrics than in the rest of their albums combined. “Dream in Blue” recalls, “I flew around with shiny things / And when I spoke, I seemed to sing”. “Wake Up Dolores” intones “Oh sacred night / On Quetzal plumes / Of dying suns / And purple moons”. Ont he darker side, “Angels with Dirty Faces” looks at a world with a “broken window smile” and “weeds for hair”, while “Short Side of Nothing” imagines “Crows up on the rooftop / Laughing out my name.”
Admittedly, it might be a stretch to look for flashes of magic in Los Lobos’s music. Maybe they were just feeling a little bit more poetic than usual. Then again, there’s the album’s title track and centerpiece, so unlike anything the band have recorded before or since. “Kiko and the Lavender Moon”, drifting in on a bed of jazzy lounge music that Little Nemo would have killed for, tells the tale (as best I can tell) about a boy who plays and bends and shakes, and when he “flies up to the wall / Stands on one foot / Doesn’t even fall”, it’s hard to know if he’s awake or dreaming. The whole song could be a dream, and a large part of its charm is that it glides along on that dreamlike ambiguity. Or Kiko could be some fey night child, more at home with black cats than with the people he seems to avoid by sleeping all day—if you really want to stretch your interpretation of the song.
The point is: there’s a spirit to Kiko that’s shared by no other Los Lobos album. It captures a unique moment in time for the band. While it’s still a Los Lobos album with the usual real-world concerns (“Angels with Dirty Faces”, for example, is informed by the harsh conditions outside the studio.“Two Janes” is about suicide. “Just a Man” is one long cry of regret.), it’s also the closest Los Lobos ever came to magical realism, and it might help explain why the album still stands so tall today on its 20th anniversary.
To commemorate that milestone, Kiko is being re-released in a deluxe format with extra tracks, and as live CD and DVD. That live recording is from a 2006 performance at San Diego’s House of Blues, at which Los Lobos played the album in its entirety. It marked the first time some of Kiko‘s songs had been played live, not that you could ever tell it from the skill the band brings to the stage. It’s just what you’d expect from Los Lobos: great songs, skillfully played. They hew close to the recorded versions, with periods of jamming that show, after 40 years together, that these guys can follow each other down any improvisational road they fancy.
When Kiko was recorded, Los Lobos were at a crossroads. Fresh from the success of La Bamba and the recording of 1990’s The Neighborhood, which they considered a compromised disappointment, the band did some soul-searching and holed-up to record Kiko, following whatever weird ideas, rhythms, and textures seemed interesting at the time. The inclusion of producer Mitchell Froom and engineer Tchad Blake (who were apparently navigating their own sonic crossroads) added new wrinkles to the album’s sound, giving it the shimmering vintage feel that Los Lobos would further explore on albums like 1996’s Colossal Head and 1999’s This Time. So part of the challenge of Kiko Live is returning some of the songs back to their unvarnished roots without the effects and the dreamlike vibe. It’s fun to hear the album played with some live crackle, and there’s plenty of that in moments like the extended guitar workouts of “That Train Don’t Stop Here”, “Just a Man”, and “Wicked Rain”. The live sound takes the album back to its gritty roots.
The Kiko Live DVD presents the show in two ways: as the performance by itself, or intercut with interviews about the song or the album. You can’t lose either way. The performance is shot primarily in close-ups of the band, so you lose some of the club vibe in favor of what initially feels like an in-studio performance. You quickly forget about that, though, once the show heats up. The interview segments are informative, providing insight into the meanings of the songs, or the little tricks that resulted in them sounding the way they did. In fact, it’s a shame there aren’t even more interview segments, since the album represented such a turning point for the band.
Despite Kiko being the focus of the performance, one of the DVD’s real treats is the encore, which features Cesar Rosas dropping his cool stoicism to lead Los Cenzontles (who brought a mariachi feel to “Rio de Tenampa” to close the main set) and eventually Los Lobos through raucous takes on “Carabina 30-30” and “Volver, Volver”. The band opts to perform the closing “La Bamba” in its traditional form, complete with harp. Kiko might have been the album that found them fusing all of their inspirations together, but this short encore shows how they never forgot their roots.
There’s no doubt that Kiko is an achievement worthy of celebration. The album holds up as well today as it did when it was released, but this performance reveals some of the fire hidden behind the album’s unique sonic mask. It’s Los Lobos performing Kiko, and there’s no way that’s going to be bad.