Los Lobos Celebrate L.A.’s Music Heritage on New Album

Los Lobos are a band I immensely respect for their great musicianship. Admittedly, my opinion is based on a relatively limited amount of their music I’ve heard thus far. Not counting singles, their impressive catalog includes 17 studio albums, four live records, three compilations and a couple of EPs, spanning 40-plus years. When I spotted their new release Native Sons and noticed it was largely a collection of covers, I wasn’t sure what to expect. To say it upfront, I’ve been enjoying this album a lot!

I don’t mind when a music artist or a band throws in some covers on their albums. After all, that’s what two of my all-time favorite bands The Beatles and The Rolling Stones did early in their recording careers. But an entire album of covers? Plus, for a band in their fifth decade one could be forgiven to wonder whether they have run out of ideas or were looking to make a quick buck. Well, I don’t believe that’s the case here. Plus, I’ve read a half dozen reviews and it strikes me they are all very positive.

Los Lobos Announce L.A.-Themed Covers Album, Premiere Two New Tracks -  Variety
Los Lobos (from left): Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar, mandolin), Conrad Lozano (bass, guitarron, vocals), Steve Berlin (saxophone, percussion, flute, midsax, harmonica, melodica), Louis Perez (drums, guitar, percussion, vocals) and David Hidalgo (vocals, guitar, accordion)

The overarching theme of Native Sons, which was released on July 30, is that all tracks are by artists and bands who are from Los Angeles originally or found their way there. Apart from 12 covers ranging from popular artists like Jackson Browne and The Beach Boys to lesser known acts such as Thee Midniters and Lalo Guerrero, the album features one original, which is the title track.

“Well, most of the artists we covered were actually people who came to Los Angeles from somewhere else, like me,” explained the band’s longtime saxophonist Steve Berlin during an interview with American Songwriter. “That’s one of the beauties of the city—people come from all different places. But once you get there, you’re there and you know where you’re supposed to be. But the other guys in the band, they’re natives, which is where the title came from.”

Time for some music. Here’s the opener Love Special Delivery by Thee Midniters, a Chicano rock band who like Los Lobos were from East L.A. The song, co-written by lead vocalist Willie Garcia and bassist Jimmy Espinoza, was the title track of their 1966 studio album. “It’s special to me because Thee Midniters were a group that I grew up listening to around my neighborhood in East LA in the ‘60s as a kid, and I just always loved the groove to that song,” Los Lobos guitarist and vocalist Cesar Rosas told Variety. Indeed, a great garage rocker I had never heard of before! Like is the case for all covers, Los Lobos’ rendition stays pretty close to the original, which you can listen to here.

Los Chucos Suaves by Lalo Guerrero is the only Spanish tune on the album. According to Wikipedia, the guitarist, singer and farm labor activist was best known for his strong influence on later Latin musical artists. Guerrero also represents an artist who was not a native Los Angelino but moved to L.A. in the 1940s. Lalo Guerrero Y Sus Cincos Lobos recorded Los Chucos Suaves in 1949, as the explanatory notes of the below clip explain, which add Guerrero is known as “The Father of Chicano Music.” Again, I’m also including a link to the original, if you’re curious. Here’s Los Lobos’ version – just incredible how versatile this band is!

Next up is the great title track, which as noted above is the only original song on the album. Native Son was co-written by Louis Perez (words) and David Hidalgo (music). The lyrics pretty much say it all. An excerpt: …No matter where I lay my head/No matter how far I’ve run/I dream about the day you’ll take me back/I’m your native son…Love that warm sound!

Perhaps the vocal highlight of the album is the excellent version of Sail on, Sailor, a tune by The Beach Boys. Credited to Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, Van Dyke Parks, Ray Kennedy and Jack Rieley, the song first appeared as the opener of the band’s 19th studio album Holland from January 1973. It was also released separately as a single later that month, climbing to no. 49 on the Billboard Hot 100, the first of only five U.S. top 50 singles The Beach Boys scored during the ’70s. Their significant ’60s chart success, especially during the first half of the decade, was history. The original is here. Now check out Los Lobos. Apart from being excellent musicians, these guys also can sing!

The last track I’d like to highlight is Flat Top Joint, originally by East L.A. compadres The Blasters. Written by Dave Alvin, the great rock & roll tune was first included on The Blasters’ debut album American Music from 1980. The explanatory notes to the below clip recall a cool anecdote: After a Blasters’ show at The Country Club in Reseda, Los Lobos handed Phil Alvin a cassette. “Hey! We’re a band from East L.A.!” Phil responded: “We’re from East L.A. too!” Later, the Blasters asked the band to open for them at the Whisky a Go Go, which eventually led to Los Lobos’ first label signing with Slash Records. There’s a second connection between the two bands. Steve Berlin was playing with The Blasters before he joined Los Lobos in 1984. Here’s the excellent original. And here’s how Los Lobos covers it. Man, that tune just rocks!

Native Sons, which appears on New West Records and was produced by Los Lobos, is the band’s 17th studio album. Los Lobos have been around since 1973. Four of their five members are original members: Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar, mandolin), Conrad Lozano (bass, guitarron, vocals), Louis Perez (drums, guitar, percussion, vocals) and David Hidalgo (vocals, guitar, accordion). As noted above, Steve Berlin (saxophone, percussion, flute, midsax, harmonica, melodica) joined in 1984.

The band is embarking on a busy U.S. tour today in Costa Mesa, Calif. The full schedule is here.

Sources: Wikipedia; American Songwriter; Variety; Discogs; Songkick; YouTube

The Sunday Six

Celebrating music with six random songs at a time

The Sunday Six has become my favorite recurring feature of the blog. Highlighting six tunes from any genre and any time gives me plenty of flexibility. I think this has led to pretty diverse sets of tracks, which I like. There’s really only one self-imposed condition: I have to truly dig the music I include in these posts. With that being said, let’s get to this week’s picks.

Lonnie Smith/Lonnie’s Blues

Let’s get in the mood with some sweet Hammond B-3 organ-driven jazz by Lonnie Smith. If you’re a jazz expert, I imagine you’re aware of the man who at some point decided to add a Dr. title to his name and start wearing a traditional Sikh turban. Until Friday when I spotted the new album by now 78-year-old Dr. Lonnie Smith, I hadn’t heard of him. If you missed it and are curious, I included a tune featuring Iggy Pop in yesterday’s Best of What’s New installment. Smith initially gained popularity in the mid-60s as a member of the George Benson Quartet. In 1967, he released Finger Lickin’ Good Soul Organ, the first album under his name, which then still was Lonnie Smith. Altogether, he has appeared on more than 70 records as a leader or a sideman, and played with numerous other prominent jazz artists who in addition to Benson included the likes of Lou Donaldson, Lee Morgan, King Curtis, Terry Bradds, Joey DeFrancesco and Norah Jones. Here’s Lonnie’s Blues, an original from his above mentioned solo debut. Among the musicians on the album were guitarist George Benson and baritone sax player Ronnie Cuber, both members of the Benson quartet. The record was produced by heavyweight John Hammond, who has worked with Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Mike Bloomfield and Stevie Ray Vaughan, to name some.

John Hiatt/Have a Little Faith in Me

Singer-songwriter John Hiatt’s songs are perhaps best known for having been covered by numerous other artists like B.B. King, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, Linda Ronstadt, Ry Cooder and Nick Lowe. While his albums received positive reviews from critics, it took eight records and more than 10 years until Hiatt finally had an album that made the Billboard 200: Bring the Family, from May 1987, which reached no. 107. The successor Slow Turning was his first to crack the top 100, peaking at no 98. If I see this correctly, his highest scoring album on the U.S. mainstream chart to date is Mystic Pinball from 2012, which climbed to no. 39. Hiatt did much better on Billboard’s Independent Chart where most of his albums charted since 2000, primarily in the top 10. Fans can look forward to Leftover Feelings, a new album Hiatt recorded during the pandemic with the Jerry Douglas Band, scheduled for May 21. Meanwhile, here’s Have a Little Faith in Me, a true gem from the above noted Bring the Family, which I first knew because of Joe Cocker’s 1994 cover. Hiatt recorded the album together with Ry Cooder (guitar), Nick Lowe (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums), who four years later formed the short-lived Little Village and released an eponymous album in 1992.

Robbie Robertson/Go Back to Your Woods

Canadian artist Robbie Robertson is of course best known as lead guitarist and songwriter of The Band. Between their July 1968 debut Music from Big Pink and The Last Waltz from April 1978, Robertson recorded seven studio and two live albums with the group. Since 1970, he had also done session and production work outside of The Band, something he continued after The Last Waltz. Between 1980 and 1986, he collaborated on various film scores with Martin Scorsese who had directed The Last Waltz. In October 1987, Robertson’s eponymous debut appeared. He has since released four additional studio albums, one film score and various compilations. Go Back to Your Woods, co-written by Robertson and Bruce Hornsby, is a track from Robertson’s second solo album Storyville from September 1991. I like the tune’s cool soul vibe.

Joni Mitchell/Refuge of the Roads

Joni Mitchell possibly is the greatest songwriter of our time I’ve yet to truly explore. Some of her songs have very high vocals that have always sounded a bit pitchy to my ears. But I realize that’s mostly the case on her early recordings, so it’s not a great excuse. Plus, there are tunes like Big Yellow Taxi, Chinese Café/Unchained Melody and Both Sides Now I’ve dug for a long time. I think Graham from Aphoristic Album Reviews probably hit the nail on the head when recently told me, “One day you’ll finally love Joni Mitchell.” In part, his comment led me to include the Canadian singer-songwriter in this post. Since her debut Song to a Seagull from March 1968, Mitchell has released 18 additional studio records, three studio albums and multiple compilations. Since I’m mostly familiar with Wild Things Run Fast from 1982, this meansbthere’s lots of other music to explore! Refuge of the Roads is from Mitchell’s eighth studio album Hejira that came out in November 1976. By that time, she had left her folkie period behind and started to embrace a more jazz oriented sound. The amazing bass work is by fretless bass guru Jaco Pastorius. Sadly, he died from a brain hemorrhage in September 1987 at the age of 35, a consequence from severe head injuries inflicted during a bar fight he had provoked.

Los Lobos/I Got to Let You Know

Los Lobos, a unique band blending rock & roll, Tex-Mex, country, zydeco, folk, R&B, blues and soul with traditional Spanish music like cumbia, bolero and norteño, have been around for 48 years. They were founded in East Los Angeles in 1973 by vocalist and guitarist David Hildago and drummer Louis Pérez who met in high school and liked the same artists, such as Fairport Convention, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. Later they asked their fellow students Frank Gonzalez (vocals, mandolin, arpa jarocha), Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar, bajo sexto) and Conrad Lozano (bass, guitarron, vocals) to join them, completing band’s first line-up. Amazingly, Hidalgo, Pérez, Rosas and Lozano continue to be members of the current formation, which also includes Steve Berlin (keyboards, woodwinds) who joined in 1984. Their Spanish debut album Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles was self-released in early 1978 when the band was still known as Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles. By the time of sophomore album How Will the Wolf Survive?, their first major label release from October 1984, the band had shortened their name to Los Lobos and started to write songs in English. In 1987, Los Lobos recorded some covers of Ritchie Valens tunes for the soundtrack of the motion picture La Bamba, including the title track, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in the summer of the same year. To date, Los Lobos have released more than 20 albums, including three compilations and four live records. I Got to Let You Know, written by Rosas, is from the band’s aforementioned second album How Will the Wolf Survive? This rocks!

Booker T. & the M.G.’s/Green Onions

Let’s finish where this post started, with the seductive sound of a Hammond B-3. Once I decided on that approach, picking Booker T. & the M.G.’s wasn’t much of a leap. Neither was Green Onions, though I explored other tunes, given it’s the “obvious track.” In the end, I couldn’t resist featuring what is one of the coolest instrumentals I know. Initially, Booker T. & the M.G.’s were formed in 1962 in Memphis, Tenn. as the house band of Stax Records. The original members included Booker T. Jones (organ, piano), Steve Cropper (guitar), Lewie Steinberg (bass) and Al Jackson Jr. (drums). They played on hundreds of recordings by Stax artists during the ’60s, such as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Sam & Dave, Carla Thomas, Rufus Thomas and Albert King. In 1962 during downtime for recording sessions with Billy Lee Riley, the band started improvising around a bluesy organ riff 17-year-old Booker T. Jones had come up with. It became Green Onions and was initially released as a B-side in May 1962 on Stax subsidiary Volt. In August of the same year, the tune was reissued as an A-side. It also became the title track of Booker T. & the M.G.’s debut album that appeared in October of the same year. In 1970, Jones left Stax, frustrated about the label’s treatment of the M.G.’s as employees rather than as musicians. The final Stax album by Booker T. & the M.G.s was Melting Pot from January 1971. Two additional albums appeared under the band’s name: Universal Language (1977) and That’s the Way It Should Be (1994). Al Jackson Jr. and Lewie Steinberg passed away in October 1975 and July 2016, respectively. Booker T. Jones and Steve Cropper remain active to this day. Cropper has a new album, Fire It Up, scheduled for April 23. Two tunes are already out and sound amazing!

Sources: Wikipedia; YouTube