The Wolf Survives

David Hidalgo isn't a man big on words, so he doesn't exactly exude what one would call passion for his legacy when discussing the fact that Los Lobos is now a quarter-century old. Still, there's the awareness that over the course of 25 years-15 in the limelight-"the Wolves" have been something special, something more than the average rock & roll band."I guess I always knew something was there," Hidalgo says a bit haltingly. "We had been together for 10 years before we even made a record or anything, so I guess we felt there was something about the band worth hanging onto. We just kind of slowly found a place for ourselves. It's good. I guess we've made some decent music and gotten some respect. And I'm glad about that."This from a guy whose group is one of the most cherished institutions in rock & roll among fans and critics alike. There is perhaps no better party band in the world: Los Lobos' shake-yer-ass brew of Mexican norteno, blues, folk, country, Tex-Mex and rock is a sonic celebration of life-without the empty-headedness so often associated with party-friendly roots music. Soulful, searching laments of the downtrodden and eloquent political statements abound in the Los Lobos canon, along with churning accordion lines, plaintive vocals and rip-your-face-off guitar work.Los Lobos' appearance Friday at Chapman University for a benefit for Integrity House-a rehab facility for people suffering from traumatic brain injuries and other cognitive disabilities-is a double rarity. Aside from the fact that the group-singer/guitarist/multi-instrumentalists Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, drummer Louie Perez, bassist Conrad Lozano, and keyboardist/reed man Steve Berlin-is seen locally with about as much frequency as Halley's comet, this is an unusual opportunity to catch Los Lobos in an intimate setting."This is a small theater, and we'll be doing a 'Los Lobos Lite' show, I guess you could call it for lack of a better term," Hidalgo says. "We'll start out with folk stuff and kind of work our way up to louder stuff."The cause is near and dear to Hidalgo's heart. "My oldest brother, [Al], had an accident and suffered a head injury, and he's been in rehab for years," he says. "I've been trying to find a good place for him. So I went down and met the people at Integrity House and the director, and I found out what they're all about. This is something I've been trying to get my brother into for years."The members of Los Lobos (except for relative newcomer Berlin, who's been with the group for a scant 14 years) have known one another since childhood. Growing up in the East LA barrio, they formed as a Top 40 band to play weddings and bars, netting their first paying gig in 1978. Little by little, Los Lobos began to edge bits of acoustic Mexican folk music into their rock & roll, and by 1983, they made their national debut with the stunning, groundbreaking . . . And a Time to Dance EP on Slash Records. Los Lobos sounded positively exotic in the face of the competition, and the barrio kids soon became rock stars.Charter members of LA's roots-rock scene in the mid '80s (which included such late, lamented bands as the Blasters, the Long Ryders and Rank & File), Los Lobos toured the world, released a few more albums (including the all-time classic How Will the Wolf Survive?), and gained a solid international following.The real breakthrough came in 1987, when the group re-recorded several songs by Ritchie Valens for the biopic La Bamba, including the title song, which went on to become a No. 1 smash. Los Lobos was now rich and famous, but inevitable pigeonholing as an oldies band resulted.The group responded with Las Pistola y el Corazon, a critically acclaimed but commercially momentum-breaking album of full-blown traditional Mexican folk music. Los Lobos' time at the top of the charts was through-by their own fierce will not to be boxed into the retro genre. The band has grown increasingly experimental over the years, with elaborately layered, eclectic albums like 1992's exquisite Kiko and their last effort, 1996's noisy and disappointing Colossal Head. They're currently in the studio working on a belated follow-up, which Hidalgo says will be "in the vein of the last album but more aggressive. Where Colossal Head had more of a slow burn, this is more immediate. It seems more up and in-your-face. Things seem to be coming more naturally these days, more comfortable. I'm happy we seem to be able to keep going in different places." Los Lobos is now composed of a bunch of fortysomething homebodies with houses full of kids to care for, and their relatively lean time on the road and in the studio reflects that. Session and soundtrack work comprises much of their efforts these days as they settle into the role of roots-rock elder statesmen. For his part, Hidalgo seems content to pass the torch on to a younger generation of musicians, and he acts more passionate about the new sounds coming from the barrio than he does about his own muse."Of the new bands I've heard, one I really like is Ozomatli," he says. "They're amazing, a lot of energy. There are other bands doing that sort of thing around town, too. There's this new wave of young bands, and our view of East LA is almost like it's rural now, more like a small-town viewpoint compared with what they're doing. It's become more urban. It's quicker -you gotta be on your toes. It reflects the lifestyle-you gotta watch your back everywhere you go. It's good to see young bands doing something new. "LA used to be more Mexican-American; now it's Latino: the Salvadorans, the Nicaraguans, people from Central America and all over. The hip-hop/rap thing has influenced everything. It's become a different trip, a bigger mix. And it's great to watch it happen."Los Lobos performs at Chapman University's Memorial Hall, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange, (714) 526-9154. Fri., 8 p.m. $35-$50; performance and after-party with the band, $100. All proceeds benefit Integrity House. All ages.


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