I first saw LOS LOBOSin 1983. Word on the street was that these guys were the most dangerous band in the world to share a stage with, but as this was before their first major album was released, all you really had to go on was a solid but less-than-groundbreaking track on a compilation album called L.A. Rockabilly. I was in the Beat Farmers back then, and we shared a bill with Los Lobos at San Diego State. Well, they comprehensively kicked our asses that night—it was men vs. boys, and I loved every second of the beating.
No one had mixed Mexican norteowith rock, 'billy, country and blues like this before, and it was a revelation—accordions and lap steel guitars were not in vogue among early '80s rock & roll bands. They had a pair of terrific singer/songwriter/guitarists in David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, each of whom was good enough to be a major star in his own right. They played songs of incredible tenderness and deep social insight at a time when those qualities were anathema to the burgeoning punk and new wave that were then dominating the music scene. Their pure joy, energy and sterling musicianship transformed a stuffy, trendy college hall into a raging back-yard dance party in East LA. Suddenly, I had a new favorite band.
So much has changed since then. Los Lobos became huge from their work on 1987's La Bambasoundtrack, which took them all the way back to their roots in '50s vato rock. They rejected their sudden mainstream stardom on the following year's all-Spanish folk-music opus La Pistola y el Corazon. Then they became critics' darlings with 1992's Kiko—often referred to as their turning-point album, their Sgt. Pepper. The problem for me was that I always hated Sgt. Pepper.
Thus began Los Lobos' association with producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, a relationship that endures to this day. Once clean and basic, the sound became bloated and pretentious. The lyrics became cryptic and simple where once they were complex and moving. Los Lobos released pompous "concept" albums where once they were cohesive collections of dynamite rock & roll. The nadir was 1996's Colossal Head, which took a batch of good tunes and destroyed them with a noisy, headache-inducing, industrial mix.
Through it all, I never fully lost respect for my beloved Lobos. Even if I didn't understand why this earthiest of bands opted to go artsy-fartsy on us, I still knew they were capable of great artistry beneath the galling layers of overproduction. I tried to remember that a group playing together for 20 years would want to drive down new roads. But still, there was that nagging little pitchfork-wielding guy on my shoulder telling me, "This band has become self-important, and they sound like shit."
Despite many misgivings, I've found their latest, This Time, better than any Los Lobos album since 1990's The Neighborhood (or this year's down-home solo album by Cesar Rosas, Soul Disguise). Predictably, the album is noisy—full of distracting, studio-generated effects, misguided hip-hop rhythm and distorted vocals, but for the first time in a while, the band at least manages to catch a groove and run with it. Songs recall such disparate influences as War, Led Zeppelin, the Temptations and Traffic, but the overall impression you get is of hot, futuristic Latino soul music.
The great thing, though, is that Lobos couldn't reproduce the clamorous malarkey of their recent albums in concert even if they wanted to. Go check out the Wolves on Friday night at the Sun Theatre, and you'll find five rather portly musicians doing what they do best—performing clean and natch'l rock & roll to a dance-happy roomful of fans.
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If the late Luther Allison was the most important blues artist of the '90s, it's conceivable that his son, 33-year-old BERNARD ALLISON, could follow suit, becoming the most significant bluesman of the early 2000s. Young Bernie takes much from his father's plate, but where Luther was a pure stylist, junior has absorbed the influence of many artists outside the genre, most notably Sly Stone and Johnny Winter, to come up with a more modern, eclectic approach. Yet for all the cross-pollination, Allison never loses touch with the essence of the blues; he never comes off as slick in the manner of a Robert Cray or Joe Louis Walker. He transcends the 12-bar rut while keeping his feet soaked in the mud of the Mississippi (even though, as his father's was, Allison's mud is on the banks of the Seine in Paris). And while one minute, he'll peel off a guitar lick genetically encoded from Luther, the next minute, he'll take flight into a solo with all the speed and technique of Winter, Jimmy Page or Stevie Ray Vaughan—all behind a funk rhythm straight off Sly's Stand. The guy can pick, sing and write like a sumbitch and will bear close scrutiny when he plays at the Blue Cafe on Saturday night.
Mention the name AL DIMEOLA to jazz fans, and you're likely to encounter a lot of groaning and eye-rolling. That's because the hyperskilled guitarist is best remembered as the tasteless, show-offy chops machine so deeply afflicted with diarrhea-of-the-fret-board back in the '70s and early '80s, when he was a teenage phenom with Chick Corea's Return to Forever; his early solo albums were, if anything, even more ostentatious.
With the merciful death of fusion in the '80s, DiMeola's star dimmed considerably, but that's a shame because as it turned out, the guy matured into a musician of undeniable distinction and class. His little-noticed recent albums (particularly those recorded with a group called World Sinfonia) have found DiMeola immersing himself in Brazilian tango music and other world music, playing with previously unthinkable restraint and delicacy. He's still capable of spewing fusion sewage as well (such as 1992's abominable Kiss My Axe), but deny this man the use of amplification, and he will make your ears very happy to be connected to your head.
Los Lobos play at the Sun Theatre, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700. Fri., 8 p.m. $28.50; Bernard Allison performs at the Blue Cafe, 210 The Promenade, Long Beach, (562) 983-7111. Sat., 9:30 p.m. $12; Al DiMeola plays at the Robert B. Moore Theatre, Orange Coast College, 2701 Fairview Rd., Costa Mesa, (714) 432-5880. Sat., 8 p.m. $24-$31.