By Alex Distefano
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In any just world, Los Lobos would be on the radio at least hourly, as befits one of the most soulful, inventive, tuneful and generally righteous bands on the planet. There may be no other group extant with their all-embracing scope and musicianship, whether assaying R&B ballads, Mexican gritos, zydeco stomps, experimental tone poems or seemingly any other music imagined by man or beast.
In the 30 years since they formed, the band from East Los Angeles has crafted a musical legacy that bears comparison to the little band that sprang from Liverpool 40 years ago. So the fact that you neverhear Los Lobos on the radio is just about enough to make you leave the planet.
Los Lobos saxman/keyboardist Steve Berlin actually has—at least as far as his listening habits go.
"I've pretty much given up on terrestrial radio," he says, getting his music instead from space-sent satellite radio these days. "I highly recommend XM, because it's what you wish radio was. You hear good music on it. Everybody I know that has gotten a receiver says it has changed their lives. Frankly, I don't see normal radio changing much, because it is controlled by the same forces that make everything else in our lives so pleasant today."
At least the band isn't alone when it comes to being underappreciated. The roster of friends performing on their upcoming The Ride (due in May on Mammoth Records) comprises a virtual who's-who of media-shunned greats, including Richard Thompson, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Bobby Womack, Café Tacuba, Dave Alvin, Mavis Staples, Garth Hudson, Ruben Blades and others. The album is an anniversary celebration of sorts, with the friends joining in on both old and new songs.
While we might be bitter on their behalf, Berlin and his Lobos cohorts don't waste much time worrying about their sales status.
"I'm not going to go buy an island any time soon, but I really think we're blessed to be able to make a living doing what we do. We never take that for granted. If you come to see our show, we try to make sure to give you more than you bargained for. We also have fun, and I think that comes across. We're not the sort of confection that's marketed and sold today, but that also works to our advantage, because if you have something substantial, it stands out," he says.
The band is playing a rare acoustic show at the OC Performing Arts Center Friday. Berlin says they only undertake such shows every five years or so, "because the logistics aren't easy, since the instruments can be very fragile, and there are so many of them it overwhelms the PA's inputs at many venues. The shows also take more rehearsal than we're used to, which is to say more than none. So we're actually rehearsing for this one."
Two nights prior to the OCPAC gig, the band will have played a benefit concert for East Los Angeles College, just the latest of countless benefits they've done. Though musicians are rarely many pegs above those whom the benefits are held for, they usually seem to be the first people to help.
"Things are so Darwinian now, including the current musical ecology, that if you have a conscience, you can't pretend that everything's going to get better without your doing something about it," Berlin says. "It's a horrific indictment of our society's priorities when people like my friend Alejandro Escovedo, who have brought pleasure to people and have made great art, can't afford health insurance. [Escovedo is currently undergoing a yearlong treatment for hepatitis C.] Those of us who are lucky enough to have ongoing careers need to do what we can. Plus so many people have helped us along the way that it would be ridiculous to think we don't owe the same thing back."
Berlin thinks artists have other responsibilities as well, despite people who argue that musicians and actors have no standing to speak out on the war and other issues of national importance.
"Those people are fucking idiots, aren't they? It would be one thing if there was some balance in the reportage on the news, some opposing views heard in the daily discourse, but the most fascist forces in this country have complete control of the media, so if the artists don't speak up, then there's nothing said. It's incumbent on everybodyto participate and to speak up."
On other fronts, Berlin produced upcoming albums by Quetzal and a Caribbean-flavored outing by West African singer Angélique Kidjo (Berlin's previous production credits range from Faith No More to Leo Kottke); Lobos singer/guitarist David Hidalgo produced the current John Hammond album, Ready for Love; Lobos lyricist Louie Perez has moved from Laguna Beach to Yorba Linda; and the adventurous Lobos side-band the Latin Playboys is readying a live album. While Friday's acoustic show (whose opening act, Lila Downs, should not be missed, Berlin says) is part of a brief two-week outing, look for the plugged-in band to tour extensively after The Ride is released.Los Lobos performs with Lila Downs at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787. Fri., 8 p.m. $19-$49. All ages.