Until a few years ago, I only had known Los Lobos because of their 1987 rendition of Ritchie Valens’ La Bamba. The title track of the motion picture about the Mexican-American Chicano rock & roll star topped the charts in the U.S. and many other countries around the world. While they disappeared from the charts almost as quickly as they had conquered them, Los Lobos continued to record great music and perform live. This year, they are celebrating their 50th anniversary with an extended U.S. tour. I was fortunate to catch their gig last Friday at Pollak Theatre, a 700-seat performance venue on the campus of Monmouth Univesity in West Long Branch, N.J.
Before getting to the great concert, I’d like to provide a bit of background on the group. Los Lobos, who blend rock & roll, Tex-Mex, country, zydeco, folk, R&B, blues and soul with traditional Spanish music like cumbia, bolero and norteño, were founded by David Hidalgo (vocals, guitar) and Louie Pérez (drums) in East Los Angeles, Calif. in 1973. When Hidalgo and Pérez met in high school, they realized they liked the same artists, such as Fairport Convention, Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. Subsequently, 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 the band’s first line-up.
In early 1978, the group, then still known as Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, self-released their eponymous debut album in Spanish. By the time of their October 1984 sophomore album and first major label release, How Will the Wolf Survive?, they had shortened their name to Los Lobos and started to write songs in English. Then, the group featured Hidalgo, Pérez, Rosas, Lozano and Steve Berlin (keyboards, woodwinds) who had joined in 1982, the same members Los Lobos have to this day – how many other bands can you name who have had a constant line-up for 40 years?
To date, Los Lobos have released 17 studio albums, four live records, three compilations and a couple of EPs. Their most recent album, Native Sons from July 2021, is largely a covers collection, which I reviewed here. It won a Grammy Award for Best Americana album in April 2022, the group’s fourth Grammy so far. Time to turn to the concert!
In some regards, writing this review is a bit of a challenge, since I’m only familiar with some of Los Lobos’ music. Moreover, if you check setlist.fm, you quickly notice the band varies their setlists from gig to gig – one sign of their great musicianship. As of the writing of this post, no setlist for this specific gig has been posted on setlist.fm. Thanks to notes I took on my phone during the show and some research, I’ve been able to figure out 60 percent of the songs they played- not too shabby I suppose.
Based on my insights, Los Lobos’ setlist spanned their entire career. Apart from their own songs, they played a number of covers, drawing on the studio albums How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984), The Neighborhood (1990), Kiko (1992), Colossal Head (1996), The Ride (2004), The Town and the City (2006) and Native Sons (2021), among others. The band not only demonstrated great musicianship but also their stylistic versatility, including rock, blues, Tex Mex, cumbia, pop and jazz.
Los Lobos kicked off the show with Is This All There Is?, co-written by Hidalgo and Pérez. The mid-tempo rocker is from their 2004 studio album The Ride, which featured numerous guests. For this tune, it was Little Willie G. (Willie Garcia) of Thee Midniters, one of the first successful Chicano rock bands. Check out Steve Berlin’s massive saxophone and its crunchy sound – I love it!
Chuco’s Cumbia, penned by Rosas, is a great example of a groovy Latin tune by Los Lobos. Cumbia is a folkloric genre and dance from Columbia. Originally, the song appeared on their 12th studio album The Town and the City, released in September 2006.
Another great performance was Love Special Delivery, a garage rock tune originally recorded by Thee Midniters in 1966. Los Lobos included a nice cover on the aforementioned Native Sons album.
To me, a highlight of the night was Kiko and the Lavender Moon, an original I’ve come to dig. Another one was a fantastic cover of Cream’s Politician, which I missed capturing. Co-written by Hidalgo and Pérez as well, Kiko and the Lavender Moon tune was included on Kiko, the sixth studio album by Los Lobos, released in May 1992. It’s an unusual song with traces of retro jazz and a Latin groove. I’ve heard nothing like it before.
Next, I’d like to highlight a one-two punch, starting with Don’t Worry Baby, one of my favorite Los Lobos tunes, off their above-mentioned October 1984 sophomore album How Will the Wolf Survive? The smoking blues-rocker was co-written by Rosas, Pérez and the album’s co-producer, T-Bone Burnett. Immediately following is Mas y Mas, another great rock song half sung in Spanish, half in English. This track is from their 1996 album Colossal Head. The wolves were fully unleashed!
And then the time had come for the encore: a nice medley of La Bamba, which I had not intended to record initially, but I started and then just kept going, especially when I noticed the combination with Good Lovin’. The latter was co-written by Rudy Clark and Arthur Resnick and became a no. 1 single for The Young Rascals in 1966.
Following is a partial setlist:
• Is This All There Is?
• Chuco’s Cumbia
• A Matter of Time
• Love Special Delivery (Thee Midniters cover)
• Politician (Cream cover)
• Kiko and the Lavender Moon
• Don’t Worry Baby
• Mas y Mas
• Medley: La Bamba (Ritchie Valens cover) & Good Lovin’ (The Young Rascals cover)
Eight tracks are missing from the above setlist.
Getting a ticket for Los Lobos was a relatively spontaneous decision, which I’m glad I made since I had not seen them before, plus it was pretty affordable. Since the show, Los Lobos played The Gordon Center of the Performing Arts in Owings Mills, Md. and The Paramount Theatre in Charlottesville, Va. Tonight, they perform at The Ramkat in Winston-Salem, N.C. Then they are taking a short break before heading to Arizona where they play the Fox Tucson Theatre in Tucson (March 10) and the Chandler Center for the Arts in Chandler (March 11). The full tour schedule is here. If you like their music, I can recommend seeing them.
Sources: Wikipedia; Los Lobos website; YouTube