To paraphrase from their 1980's hit, the Wolf has survived quite nicely thank you. For nearly 30 years East L.A.'s Los Lobos has consistently served up an eclectic mix of roots rock, blues and traditional Mexican folk music.
They have barely lifted brow of interest over the years to the changing tastes of commercial radio, walking languidly through the graveyard of new wave poseurs, hard rock hair bands, grunge and every other musical trend they have outlived.
Even when they flirted with Hollywood and mega-success thanks to the 1987 movie and song La Bamba that yielded their biggest hit, they did not change. I wouldn't be surprised if Cesar Rojas has had the same black shades since 1983. This is why the title of their new album is both simple and prophetic: The Ride. Los Lobos' long musical journey has been based on faith and loyalty to themselves and their audience.
On May 5th at the Avalon in Hollywood they kicked over the motor again to celebrate their new album and not surprisingly the results, like the band, were classic. Refreshingly unpretentious Los Lobos stroll onto the stage slowly and relaxed the way longtime friends might when they see you at a neighborhood party and that's the vibe the band sends out regardless of the venue.
They opened with a rocker Don't Worry Baby, played the more recent Hearts of Stone as well as other songs from previous albums. But they relied heavily on material from The Ride starting with the biting Latin shuffle of La Venganza de Los Pelados where Mexico City's Cafe Tacuba joined them onstage.
Other replicated guest stars from the new album included former Thee Midnighters vocalist Willie G on the soulful Is This All There Is and English guitar legend Richard Thompson on the hypnotic Wreck of the Carlos Rey. You don't often hear Chicano shipwreck songs every day, quipped Keyboardist/Saxophonist Steve Berlin in a press release concerning the new album.
The theme of the everyday living and hopes of ordinary people remain a strong influence on The Ride as evidenced by it's eight minute urban epic Wicked Rain/Across 110th Street ,where Bobby Womack provides impassioned vocals to Lobos furiously funky backing on a track worthy of recalling Marvin Gaye's similar ruminations on urban struggle.
The ever eccentric Tom Waits guests on the album in an odd but addictive mambo Kitate, and guitarist/singer Cesar Rojas delivers the goods on the bluesy rocker Hurry Up Tomorrow Which was preformed live at the Avalon with a blistering solo to accentuate the desperate urgency of the lyrics.
With age naturally comes melancholia, Somewhere in Time with Dave Alvin for example or bewilderment as on the excellent Rita, a slow but lushly melodic pop song where singer David Hidalgo confesses he "can't really tell you what's going on with the radio these days" (you're not missing much, Dave) and that his head is "always so filled up." Fortunately it's also still filled with great songs.
The Ride also features contributions from Elvis Costello, Mavis Staples, Martha Gonzalez and Ruben Blades whose bouncy Ya Se Va is a highlight. Together they make an excellent case for the Wolf's survival and another possible Grammy.
At the Avalon the band occasionally took lengthy pauses between songs while Hidalgo and company gave directions to each other and there is a sense that the play list is still being adjusted with Rojas at one point confessing they were still a little rusty, but when they put their foot on the peddle the band conceived scorching blues flavored rock, virtuoso guitar solos, heartfelt Mexican balladry and as tight a rhythm section as you are as likely to hear anywhere.
"It's been one heck of ride," said Hidalgo of the band's journey, "and it just get's better all the time."
I can't argue with him, He's still got a cool ride after all these years.