The art of making a great album that stands the test of time is one being threatened by the 21st century changes in the music industry. Most bands still make albums but the demise of record stores and advent of digital downloading has seen album purchases plummet. Yet serious music fans will always crave that great work of musical art that holds together and shows a band at a creative pinnacle.
Los Lobos of have been knocking out great albums for years, but 1992’s Kiko has come to represent one of those pinnacles. The band had become somewhat frustrated with the expectations of the music industry, which wanted to pigeonhole them in a certain way after the success of the La Bamba soundtrack, where Los Lobos modernized the classic work of the legendary Richie Valens. It was on Kiko where Los Lobos decided to throw caution to the wind and just follow their muse to produce an experimental and psychedelic classic. Now, 20 years later, the band finds itself honored with an invite to perform the album in its entirety at the Grammy Museum’s ultra-intimate Clive Davis Theater. The 200-capacity venue feels more like a screening room than a concert hall, which adds a surreal vibe to the proceedings.
“I think it was the frustration of the ’80s you know, having to record a certain way… We’d write songs, and then we’d go into a rehearsal studio and rehearse em and do that kind of thing. After a while it just got a little discouraging, it was kind of a bummer, it just seemed like the records weren’t coming out the way we wanted,” guitarist/vocalist Cesar Rosas said in an interview before the show.
“So we thought by ’91, when the Kiko project came around, we decided to take a bolder step and just say screw it all, we’ll go in with a few songs, but we just started recording differently,” Rosas added, noting that much of the material was written in the studio.
This more open creative approach shows in the album’s sonic diversity, with the band touching on a variety of genres and themes that hit on some deeper spiritual topics and existential pondering than your standard rock fare.
“You can’t really predict[where a song will go], you gotta follow the inspiration,” added guitarist/vocalist David Hidalgo, long the band’s primary songwriter.
One of the tunes that took on a certain staying power is “When the Circus Comes to Town”, a heartfelt ballad that taps into a deep heartbreak but not necessarily a personal one per se.
“It started with the title, there was this book called ‘Pissing in the Snow’… It was like old Appalachian dirty jokes. One of the stories was ‘When the Circus Comes to Town’. I just liked the sound of it, remembered it, told it, and then Louie took it somewhere else,” Hidalgo said, referring to band mate and co-writer Louie Perez.
In an interesting twist, “Circus” reached a whole new audience when jam-rock titans Phish added it to their repertoire in 1997. This mirrored the way that Los Lobos had covered the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha” with such aplomb that singer/songwriter Jackie Greene thought it was a Los Lobos song until he was tapped to join Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s band in 2007-08. Rock ‘n’ roll often tends to work in a cyclical nature and Los Lobos have found themselves riding one of those waves that has them at the top of their game here in 2012. But the band has been working towards the Kiko anniversary for a few years, having first played the album in its entirety back in 2006.
“We’ve been working on this for awhile. We’d been playing around the country and the idea came up to perform the whole album. We first first did it at the Fillmore, and it did okay I guess,” said Hidalgo in the humble and self-deprecating manner that such talented musicians often seem to possess. “Then we got this engineer who said he’d get a crew together for the video and the idea grew… I think we did four shows altogether.”
The band filmed their performance of the album at San Diego’s House of Blues that year and turned the show into a DVD release. Now they’re playing another handful of Kiko shows as well as heading out on the road with Neil Young & Crazy Horse.
“We’re big fans, and its Crazy Horse too, so its amazing,” Hidalgo said. Anyone who’s ever seen Los Lobos perform “Down by the River” can attest to this and the pairing looks to be one of the best that rock has to offer this fall. After that, Los Lobos will brainstorm on ideas of how to celebrate their fortieth anniversary in 2013. This puts Los Lobos in rare air, as there aren’t many bands that last for four decades.
“We know we wanna do something for our 40th, but we don’t know what it is yet… We’re just a working band,” said Hidalgo.
Los Lobos certainly seemed like more than just another working band when they hit the stage a few hours later to play Kiko in its entirety. Seeing such a great band play to a seated audience in a venue that felt more like a movie theater was an odd sensation, but the band was certainly on top of their game. Hidalgo had said there were a few songs they hadn’t played in awhile that needed extra rehearsal, but audience members would have been hard pressed to name which songs those were.
“Angels with Dirty Faces” featured a slow groove and psychedelic ambiance, boosted by some sweet guitar work from Hidalgo. Rosas introduced “That Train Don’t Stop Here”, as “a little bit of blues here”. He proceeded to delve deep into a blues shuffle, including a hot solo with some trills using the psychedelic rotary effect for an extra boost. The title track and “Saint Behind the Glass” were gems that had the audience nearly mesmerized, and “When the Circus Comes to Town” sparkled with Hidalgo delivering some of his most soulful vocals.
Rosas starred again on “Wicked Rain”, another bluesy rocker that also featured some great sax work from Steve Berlin over a deep groove from bassist Conrad Lozano. “Just a Man” started off as a slow blues before Hidalgo wailed one of his deepest solos of the night. “Peace” is the penultimate finale and an appropriate one, giving the band a chance to open up on a more elaborate number that also resonates with timely sentiment in an ever war-torn world. Will Earth ever see world peace? Many say no, but with Los Lobos still rocking into their 40th year, the power of rock ‘n’ roll makes almost anything seem possible.