13 Mar 2009: Fillmore NY at Irving Plaza New York, NY
Los Lobos make it easy to love them. Showmen to the end, they remain humble and exciting and, most importantly, still committed to being unpretentious and immensely professional entertainers. There’s great comfort in Cesar Rosas, for example, continuing to offer his usual “hello, music lovers” salutation, or, at the end of a show on occasion, David Hidalgo waving to a crowd and saying a simple “We are Los Lobos Blues Band. Thank you very much.” This is a band that’s never felt far off the ground from its audience; its connection is intimate and its appeal is still as immediate as it must have been when it came up, all those years ago, as a bar and wedding band specializing in rockabilly, blues, and Mexican folk songs. That this fundamental value hasn’t wavered in the band’s three decades is as impressive as the fact that it’s kept the core lineup together just as long.
In a word, Los Lobos are no bullshit—no compromise. They’re as comfortable playing traditional cancións and cumbias as they are the well-worn blues and rock covers that usually turn up by the end of the night. While their shows don’t always have the crackle and zip of the Los Lobos of yesteryear—and given how long and how effectively they’ve been doing this, you grant them a slow night once in a while—you’ll still get what you came for.
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The band’s most recent tour, which included an uneven but ultimately satisfying stop at the former Irving Plaza, found it devoting an early set to what Hidalgo called an “acoustic folk thing,” and then cranking things up with their usual electric bravado for a later set.
It worked to a point, though not fully: A first full set of easy grooving tunes and mellow acoustic moods looks great on paper, but doesn’t move the way a Los Lobos crowd craves. It was a supper club, or outdoor picnic set, not a late night, booze-soaked rocker of a set befitting a club like this, and while “Colas”, “Saint Behind the Glass”, and “Arizona Skies” are lovely and compelling on their own, one after another, you find yourself hoping the band’s boogie-down “Don’t Worry Baby” or a ripping “Maria Christina” finds its way into the mix before your feet fall asleep. Even the brilliant “Los Ojos de Pancha” didn’t connect as usual—Hidalgo playing the original accordion part on fiddle instead—and the band was unhurried to a fault. Only when it reached “Guantanamera” (sung by bassist Conrad Lozano), did the familiar Lobos energy finally—finally—take hold at the Fillmore.
The second set was money shot Lobos. You wouldn’t quite say vintage; Hidalgo, the virtuoso mensch, looks more road-weary than ever despite the multi-instrumental talents that carry him on an off night and propel him when he’s “on.” For his part, Rosas sometimes forgets to own songs and merely reproduces them—he didn’t seem particularly engaged until the band called up an ass-shaking “300 Pounds of Heavenly Joy”. And consider me among those who still never understood the move by the band in the mid-1990s to bring Louie Perez off the drum kit to serve as a third guitarist and utility player. That’s no slight on Perez, a fine guitarist/mandolinist and an agile soloist, or ace touring drummer Cougar Estrada—I’ve just never been convinced having Perez out front adds much to what’s already such a full and buoyant sound.
But these are, in the end, minor (some might say churlish) quibbles: Los Lobos is so structurally sound a band at its foundation that it never takes long to remember why you came. Whatever your reservations, you find that moment, be it Rosas’ squawk during the chorus of “Mas y Mas”, or Steve Berlin’s smoky sax highlighting the still-hypnotic “Kiko and the Lavender Moon”, or the way Lobos will still pull out all the stops to mix in more cancións in the midst of a late-inning run of songs. “Anselma”, which the band often plays in New York, was a burst of accordion and happy feet, and “Volver, Volver”, an ancient love song that always seems to come at just the right time for a drunken sing-along, never disappoints.
The closing run of songs began with “I Got Loaded” and from there to a Lobos staple—the stomp of “Not Fade Away” bleeding into a chugging, rollicking “Bertha”. Los Lobos’ version of the Grateful Dead classic remains the gold standard for covers of the song, at the very least for not slowing down the lively tempo, and on this night they threw a curveball: A mid-section jam before the “Ran into a rainstorm…” verse that Hidalgo drove straight into “Mas y Mas” before returning, via spicy jamming and a serpentine guitar solo, back to “Bertha”.
Sure, nothing was quite as fluid as the earlier part of the set; “Mas y Mas’s” difficult syncopations dragged a bit, the band flubbed the last few bars of the “Bertha” finale, and an encore of The Who’s “My Generation” sounded like a quickly called-up afterthought. No hard feelings; it’s remarkable alone that Los Lobos is still around, in this form, to play this music, and you can rest comfortably knowing they’d never coast on that reputation alone.
// Notes from the Road
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