Los Lobos Brought the Jams for the Benefit of PBS on Cinco de Mayo

by Greg M. Schwartz

26 May 2015

Unlike any other band, Los Lobos can provide a uniquely multi-cultural soundtrack for Cinco de Mayo in the City of Angels.
Photo: Press 
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Los Lobos + Dave and Phil Alvin & the Guilty Ones

5 May 2015: The Regent Theater — Los Angeles

The benefit show has a long and storied history in rock ‘n’ roll, although many artists are shy on playing them for fear of potentially alienating a segment of their audience. However, most would probably agree that supporting the local Public Broadcasting Service station is a worthy and generally non-partisan cause. As such, the Regent Theater in Los Angeles was packed with music fans to see local heroes Los Lobos throw down their annual Cinco de Mayo fiesta in support of local PBS affiliate KLCS.

Some might quibble with the national PBS headquarters, like renowned investigative reporter Greg Palast, who says that PBS stands for the Petroleum Broadcast Service due to the fact that PBS accepts underwriting from companies associated with Big Oil. This potential conflict of editorial interest popped up a week earlier when PBS aired a new documentary on the 1970 Kent State tragedy titled The Day the ‘60s Died. The documentary is about the National Guard massacre on 4 May 1970 that left four students dead and nine more wounded following a peaceful anti-war protest. The presentation of the story left many viewers downright disgusted due to the documentary’s apologia for President Richard Nixon and Uncle Sam’s war machine.

However, a local outlet like KLCS can hardly be held responsible for national management’s compromised decisions. KLCS also earns points to help offset the petroleum influence by broadcasting Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now, perhaps the last daily national news program that refuses to accept any corporate underwriting.

Los Lobos have become a Los Angeles institution after over 40 years in the music business, so this pairing with KLCS was an appropriate match. The Los Lobos Cinco de Mayo show is also one of those unique events that continue to make the City of Angels the unique cultural mecca it is. There’s nowhere else you can get it, and there’s no other band that can provide the uniquely multi-cultural soundtrack for this occasion like Los Lobos can.

Longtime Los Lobos pals Dave and Phil Alvin opened the show, with Dave’s band the Guilty Ones kicking off the primary entertainment with a blistering set of bluesy rock with a rockabilly twang. The Alvins are another Southern California institution; both sat in with Los Lobos at their triumphant 2012 Cinco de Mayo show at Los Angeles’ Greek Theater, so there was a historical and thematic connection in play. Dave noted at one point that the Regent used to be a burlesque house in the ‘40s that his parents frequented, and that it was therefore entirely possible that he or his brother could have been conceived on the premises. He later remarked on how pleasantly amazed he was to still be rocking out here in 2015.

“If you would have told me 30 years ago that we’d still be here 30 years later, I’d’ve bet ya we wouldn’t,” Dave Alvin said. This served as prelude to a vibrant take on “Johnny Ace is Dead”, a groovy shuffle with a Texas-by-way-of-Memphis vibe. Alvin occupies a relatively unique space in 20th century music, bridging California rockabilly with Texas blues for a formula that still has a timeless twang in the 21st century.

The crowd had imbibed plenty by the time Los Lobos hit the stage, and the Regent deserves kudos for having a much better beer selection than the nearby Orpheum Theater. The Regent doesn’t have the ornate decor of the Orpheum, but they at least serve a few regional microbrews. There was also a separate Dos Equis stand, seemingly in honor of the occasion.

Los Lobos opened the show with a several Mexican folk tunes to get the party started, before digging into their own repertoire with the majestic “Saint Behind the Glass”. The shimmering “Will the Wolf Survive?” was another early highlight, with guitarist/vocalist David Hidalgo leading the band on one of their signature songs.

Cesar Rosas took the lead with Spanish vocals on “Chuco’s Cumbia” as the crowd grooved to the nylon stringed dance number. Saxophonist Steve Berlin was a star here and throughout the night as a whole, lifting numerous songs higher with his sharp wind work. Berlin has worked with a vast array of artists as both a producer and session man, and he helps shape Los Lobos’ sound with a sonic expertise few other musicians can match. The poignant and melodically compelling ballad “Matter of Time” brought things down a bit.

Los Lobos still had several party tricks up their sleeve, bringing out guest vocalist Little Willie G from Thee Midniters for some soulful crooning on “The Town I Live In”, as well as a mesmerizing rendition of “Is This All There Is?” Many artists are shy to singing about socio-political themes that would give their audience a little something to think about, but Los Lobos is a band that does it all, and then some. “All searching for the promised land / Tired souls with empty hands / Asking to themselves / Is this all there is?”, the band asks on a tune that questions modern society. Berlin starred again on sax during an extended jam that also saw Hidalgo deliver some of his bluesiest riffage of the night. “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” was another gem, shining brighter with some lunar style lighting effects.

Los Lobos threw caution to the wind on the first encore, inviting a slew of ladies up on stage to dance during an impromptu bust-out of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”. The band then doubled down on the fun during the second encore with a raucous “La Bamba—Good Lovin’—La Bamba” sequence that left the audience elated and sated. With over four decades rocking the nation, it will be no surprise if Los Lobos are themselves the subject of a PBS documentary in the not-too-distant future.

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