Photo: David Alan Kogut / Courtesy of the artist

Los Lobos Rock the Fillmore for “Bill’s 89th Birthday Bash”

From their early garage band days in East LA to national acclaim and ongoing status as a perennial Fillmore favorite, Los Lobos have truly become a cultural institution.

Llego Navidad
Los Lobos
4 October 2019

It’s one more Saturday night at the Fillmore in San Francisco, and the place is packed at full capacity and perhaps then some. Los Lobos is in the house here on 11 January to help the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation celebrate what would have been the legendary music promoter’s 89th birthday (actually on 8 January). Graham left the planet in a tragic helicopter crash in 1991, but his legacy continues to shine a light throughout the live music business.

Graham was the man responsible for setting up the Fillmore as ground zero for the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture in the 1960s (with a big assist from the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane), and so his spirit lives on as long as this hallowed hall rocks on. From the free apples available at every show to the free posters handed out at the end of every sold-out show, Graham’s influence still permeates the Fillmore’s timeless atmosphere.

It’s only a couple weeks past Christmas and Los Lobos’ latest album Llego Navidad is dedicated to the holiday season, so it makes sense to mix some of those tunes in here like the opener “Las mananitas”. The band turn the clock back with the shimmering title track to their classic 1984 album Will the Wolf Survive?, which feels like an appropriate tune to honor Graham and the rock ‘n’ roll counterculture in these tumultuous times. Guitarist Cesar Rosas then stars with his traditional take on “Chuco’s Cumbia”, as the dance floor gets moving.

Tonight’s audience leans in an older direction with the noticeable amount of grey-haired attendees, yet it quickly becomes apparent that this is a lively crowd that could put some of the indie rock shoegaze crowds to shame. The swinging groove of “Evangeline” generates an old-time hootenanny vibe, with Steve Berlin’s sax helping boost the energetic tune higher. A string of Spanish language tunes continues to entertain, long a part of Los Lobos’ unique charm as they mix Mexican folk songs in with the rock ‘n’ roll as only they can.

Guitarist David Hidalgo notes the proximity to the Christmas season as an introduction to Freddy Fender’s “It’s Christmas Time in Texas”, another festive tune that gives him a chance to rock some Tejano style accordion. Likewise, on the traditional “Volver, Volver”, a tune that never fails to bring the house down.

Hidalgo leads a surge to a higher spiritual vibration with “Angel Dance”, a vibrant tune from the band’s 1990 album The Neighborhood. Los Lobos gets into an entrancing groove here, extending the song with some skillful jamming before Rosas takes the lead with the bluesy rockabilly blast of “Don’t Worry Baby”. The band is rolling now as they move into full-on rock ‘n’ roll party time mode with “I Got Loaded”. Los Lobos pay tribute to Graham’s favorite band here as they jam into “Turn on Your Lovelight”, with Berlin throwing down a big sax solo to really pump up the vibe. “Lovelight” segues back into “I Got Loaded” before then jamming into “Not Fade Away” as the crowd-pleasing tribute continues.

Two teaser jams on seminal covers that became staples for the Grateful Dead then coalesce into a smoking version of the Dead’s “Bertha” that fires up the Fillmore. The Garcia/Hunter classic has long been a repertoire staple for Los Lobos, so much so that the uninitiated have often mistaken it for a Los Lobos original. The band really rock out here with Hidalgo, Rosas, and Louie Perez each taking a hot guitar solo over a flowing groove from bassist Conrad Lozano as they ride the jam for extra mileage much to the delight of the enthusiastic audience.

The set is steaming toward the finish line now, and the band keep the ride rolling with the raucous “Georgia Slop”, featuring Berlin on sax again. A similar sax line helps power “Mas y Mas”, with some dynamic polyrhythmic percussion as the band builds a big groove before segueing into the psychedelic rock power of Santana’s “Soul Sacrifice” for a fiery conclusion.

The encore features another Christmas tune with “Donde esta Santa Claus” before Los Lobos go back into classic rock territory for an electrifying closer with “One Way Out”. Rocking out with the music of the Grateful Dead, Santana, and the Allman Brothers Band certainly feels like a fitting tribute to Bill Graham, and you know Uncle Bobo would have loved every minute. Los Lobos meanwhile carry on as one of America’s longest-running working bands, now just three years away from the 50th anniversary of their formation. From their early garage band days in East LA to national acclaim and ongoing status as a perennial Fillmore favorite, Los Lobos have truly become a genuine cultural institution.