Rock’s Lone Wolves

Los Lobos brings its unmistakable Latino rock to Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall


Los Lobos’s line-up has remained unchanged since their inception. (L-R) Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, Louie Perez, and David Hidalgo (not pictured: Steve Berlin)

By Dave Gil de Rubio

Not unlike their musical forefathers, The Band, Los Lobos has always had an outsider approach, embracing American roots music while infusing plenty of the band members’ own cultural perspectives into the mix. It’s an approach that has served them well through the band’s four plus decades of making music.

The 2015 album, “Gates of Gold” (the band’s 17th studio effort and its first in five years), did what virtually every Los Lobos rock-oriented album has done—mix together hard-edged blues (“Mis-Treater Boogie Blues”), squeeze-box kissed cumbia (“Poquito Para Aqui”), and sweet ballads (“Magdalena”), into a gumbo that reflects the band’s bluesy rock roots and Mexican-American heritage. And like many of those superlative albums—1984’s “How Will the Wolf Survive?,” the innovative 1992 release “Kiko,” and 2004’s “The Ride”—released by this East Los Angeles band, “Gates of Gold” garnered plenty of positive acclaim for its mix of music.

Now the quintet is getting the chance to showcase a new song or two, mixed in with a career-spanning song set as the group tours this winter.

For saxophone player/keyboardist Steve Berlin, the band is at a great point in its history after four plus decades of playing live and in the studio.

“When you do it as long as we’ve been doing it, it’s not like we’re on some dramatic growth pattern. We have our friends and our fans. We’re in a happy spot, right in the middle,” Berlin explained. “We can tour as much as we want to. If someone would have told me in the beginning that this is where we’d be in 40 years, I don’t think anyone would have said, ‘No thanks, this is not a good deal.’ Believe me, we know how lucky we are to be able to make a living doing this.”

The California outfit’s prolific recording and touring finally landed them a deserved Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination (they were passed over), but the band’s embrace of Mexican folk music has also been around from the beginning, dating back to when master-of-many-instruments David Hidalgo, guitarist/singer Cesar Rosas, guitarist/percussionist Louie Perez, and bassist Conrad Lozano were classmates at Los Angeles’ Garfield High School back in the early 1970s. [Berlin joined in the early 1980s after a stint in the great roots rock band, the Blasters.]

The knowledge of Mexican music came in handy following the band’s breakout success when it hit the top of the charts with the soundtrack to the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic “La Bamba.” Short-sighted people around the band were happy to suggest embracing being pigeonholed by that major hit cover song, an idea that didn’t sit well with the band. The Los Lobos response was to cut “La Pistola y El Corazon,” an acoustic full-length album featuring Mexican folk songs sung in Spanish.

“I remember there was a little bit of dissention among people around us at that time that [“La Pistola y El Corazon”], was a really idiotic idea, and no one was going to want to hear Berlin recalled. And they couldn’t understand following up a multi-million selling record with something like that, but that’s exactly why we did it. There would never be a better time to do something like this, when arguably people would be paying closer attention than if we had done it 10 years later. I think it was a genius move on our part. I think it turned out great.”

“What was kind of funny was that some of the idiots around us were like, ‘You need to do ‘La Bamba II.’ And it was like, ‘Do you people realize that we basically did all the songs the guy wrote,’ which was about 18?” he said. “When he (Valens) died, he was 17. Where would you like us to get “Volume II” from? We did 12 of his 16 songs. It’s amazing how stupid some of the [suggestions] we heard in that year were.”

With “Gates of Gold” representing the end of the band’s two album contract with 429 Records, Los Lobos faces an unknown future. It’s all part of a music industry landscape that has shifted dramatically. The band has recorded for six different labels. It’s a brand-new world that Berlin admits he’s been observing as someone who has worked on many outside projects. The possibility of self-releasing music is an option.

“What our next record would be or how we do it, is kind of a daunting thing to think about,” he said. You ask how things have changed. Not a lot has really changed, but when and if the next record happens, that’s when it’s really going to change for us.”

“I’m looking forward to it just to see what we can pull off on our own,” Berlin said. “But I know it’s going to be a big adjustment for everybody else in the band.”

Los Lobos will perform at Cincinnati’s Memorial Hall at 1225 Elm Street on Jan. 25, 2018.
For tickets or more information, call 513.977.8838.

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Reach DCP freelance writer Dave Gil de Rubio at ContactUs@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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