How the Wolf Is Surviving

Los Lobos has taken some shots, but Cesar Rosas and friends are far from dead.

Over the past ten years or so, Los Lobos has probably been referred to in print as the best band in America more frequently than any other, but its level of popularity has seldom been commensurate with its formidable reputation. While groups capable of far less pack arenas, the pride of East Los Angeles is put in the position of playing moderately demeaning dates such as the November grand opening of Denver's Hard Rock Cafe--a show that added insult to injury when an overdressed yuppie with a cigar the size of a kielbasa spent half the set at the edge of the stage shouting "La Bamba!" into guitarist Cesar Rosas's face. Rosas handled the man's hectoring with class, and Los Lobos eventually played his request. But when Rosas is asked about the incident several months later, he responds with a joke that speaks volumes.

"Oh," he says. "You mean you didn't see me when I kicked him in the jaw?"
No one would have blamed him had he done so. However, Rosas prefers to deal with such annoyances in more positive ways. Los Lobos has been involved in a running battle with Warner Bros., the imprint it's called home since its early-Eighties emergence into the national spotlight. But rather than lie low and lick their wounds, the musicians have responded with a burst of fresh material, including last year's Los Super Seven, an all-star bash involving Rosas and cohorts David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin that won a Grammy last month for Best Mexican-American Music Performance. Also available are a trio of side projects issued within the past few weeks: Houndog, a rough-hewn partnership between Hidalgo and Mike Halby; Dose, which matches bandmembers Hidalgo and Louie Perez with associates Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake in a four-piece dubbed the Latin Playboys; and Soul Disguise, Rosas's first-ever solo album. Finally, a new Los Lobos disc (for a new company, Hollywood Records) is already in the can and should reach stores on June 15.

"I'm glad that the Los Lobos album won't be out for a while," Rosas admits. "Not because I don't like it, because I do. But in a way, it's too bad that everything else came out all at once. In a perfect world, I wish that Los Super Seven happened a whole year ago and that Latin Playboys came out with theirs five months ago, or three months later, so that people could appreciate them a bit more--but hopefully, some people will. Maybe they'll thrive on how much stuff is coming out."

They should, especially given the wide range of sounds on the recent batch of recordings. For instance, Los Super Seven, produced by Berlin and issued by RCA, finds Rosas and Hidalgo in the presence of accordionist supreme Flaco Jimenez, "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" crooner Freddy Fender, up-and-coming dreamboat Rick Trevino, vocalist Ruben Ramos and token Caucasian Joe Ely for a collection of unbeatable party tunes and weepers sprinkled with old-school barrio flavor. Traditionals like "El Canoero" and "La Sirena" are rendered with just the right blend of respect and renovation, Ely's version of Woody Guthrie's "Plane Wreck at Los Gatos (Deportee)" is vivid and heartrending, and compositions by Rosas ("Un Beso al Viento") and the Hidalgo/Perez team ("Rio de Tenampa") seem utterly timeless.

So, too, does Houndog, but in a completely different way. The disc, on Legacy/Columbia, is an excursion into the blues, sans the merest insinuation of slickness: The drums on "I Bought the Rain" sound as if they once contained workboots; the vocals that drive "Down Time" deserve the Howlin' Wolf seal of approval; and "All Fired Up, All Shook Down" sounds like it was pickled in the Mississippi Delta. Halby's bearish baritone dominates, which may bother fans of Hidalgo, one of the most soulful singers drawing breath. But the day is carried by a gritty mood that stands in contrast to the crazed pyrotechnics that characterize Dose, the Latin Playboys' first offering for Atlantic. Like its criminally underrated predecessor, 1994's Latin Playboys, the new CD is a bold leap into the unknown, with Froom and Blake, best known for their production acumen, warping the soundscape and Hidalgo and Perez shredding envelopes left and right. The opening instrumental, "Fiesta Erotica," is a sultry melange of fuzz-toned guitars, big beats and space music; "Cuca's Blues" rides on an echoey and evocative slab of voodoo; the creepy, surreal "Dose" occupies a middle ground between Tom Waits and MC 900 Ft. Jesus; and "Locoman" plops Curtis Mayfield-esque moaning into the middle of a percussive orgy. In short, the CD is as weird as anything a major label has put out in quite some time. And that's precisely what's interesting about it.

Rosas's Soul Disguise, made for Rykodisc, is much more direct--an enjoyable visit to the territory where Los Lobos planted its flag long ago. "Little Heaven" uses a heartland hook to explore the vagaries of love lost and found, "You've Got to Lose" plays down and dirty with a classic bit of nastiness from the pen of Ike Turner, "Angelito" embraces the pleasures of nortena, and "Soul Disguise" does the tube-steak boogie. The disc is more about rediscovering musical verities than creating new ones--and according to Rosas, that's just the way he wanted it.

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