The wolves from East LA, in Griffith Park, on a Saturday night Cinco de Mayo no less. It’s the type of dream show that can only happen in the City of Angels. Los Lobos have been rocking concert halls across the country for several decades, but there’s always something special about seeing them in their hometown. Billed as a genuine “Cinco de Mayo Fiesta” with announced special guests including Neko Case and Alejandro Escovedo, this is one of those shows that just can’t miss.
LA’s own seminal punk group X opens the show with a strong set on this cool yet still beautiful night. They might not tie into the Cinco de Mayo theme so directly, but the band certainly is very LA. This is evidenced with the propulsive title track from their 1980 debut, Los Angeles. It may have seemed unlikely back then that they’d still be going in 2012, but Exene Cervenka and John Doe have still got it. The band runs through a high energy set before concluding with a great punk version of a classic song from another LA band, The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen”. This is what a great cover is all about, taking a tune with some universal lyrics but putting your own musical spin on it to create a unique version. The cervezas flow freely during the set break with anticipation that something special is coming up.
The real fiesta begins when Los Lobos hits the stage just after 8:30 pm, with “Canción del Mariachi”, the song of the mariachi, which some recognize from Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado soundtrack. It’s a perfect mood setter to kick off the show, with a great ukelele solo from ace guitarist David Hidalgo. There’s also a magnificent “super moon” rising in the east, lending an extra mystical quality to the proceedings. Neko Case soon joins the festivities and her siren’s voice lends a compelling harmony to every tune she sings on, starting with “Saint Behind the Glass”.
The show really takes off with “One Time, One Night”. The song oozes Americana, yet also features an extended intro and a jam at the end that recall the Grateful Dead or the Allman Brothers Band on “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad”, showing off the band’s ever-impressive diversity. Hidalgo and Case trade verses, then harmonize on the choruses beautifully.
Case departs with Hidalgo thankfully announcing she’ll be back and then Cesar Rosas follows with a classic cumbia number that gets the crowd dancing. Another tune features Steve Berlin delivering a stellar sax solo during a bluesy groove that gets the crowd clapping along. Case soon rejoins the fiesta for “I’ll Burn It Down”, from the band’s most recent Tin Can Trust LP, poignantly dedicated to the recently departed Levon Helm. Hidalgo has switched from acoustic guitar to his Fender Telecaster now and rips off a typically searing solo that hits deep.
Now it’s Escovedo’s turn as the Texas troubadour fronts the band for “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)”, a ballad that sparkles under the super moon. Then he introduces the next tune as one he and the band used to do a long time ago on tour together, The True Believers’ “Rebel Kind”. It’s a perfect rocker for this pairing, nostalgic yet forward looking at the same time, with a sweet jam featuring an unannounced violinist. “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” is another bluesy highlight, with no guests, just Los Lobos on one of their many classics.
Then the unannounced guests start crashing the party. Tejano legend Flaco Jimenez joins the band on accordion, bringing the old school flavor. Rosas fronts the band on “Volver Volver” while Jimenez leads the way musically. Then it’s singer/guitarist Dave Alvin from The Blasters, sighted outside before the show, joining the festivities, as well. As the party keeps growing more and more happening. Los Lobos got a boost from touring with The Blasters in the ’80s, so it’s a great moment as Alvin leads the band through “Fourth of July”, also throwing down some great licks on his Stratocaster. Then his brother Phil joins the fun too, looking like Colonel Sanders in his white suit and sounding great on a turbo-charged “Maria Maria” to close out the set.
The encore starts with the spiritual “Be Still”, with Hidalgo singing of growing while a river flows and finding peace where we can. The show is then capped off with the almost obligatory “La Bamba”, although this fiesta has been of such a high quality that it serves as a mere bonus. Los Lobos have long been one of the most diverse bands on the planet, able to move easily from Mexican folk tunes to classic rock jams and everything in between. This night has shown that they’re still amongst the cream of Earth’s musical crop, for there are few that cover as wide a sonic ground with the uplifting skill that these musical masters do.