How the Wolf Is Surviving

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.

"I think that the type of material that's on Soul Disguise lends itself to being more straightforward," he says. "If I'd been really trippy with it, like the last couple of Los Lobos records, it wouldn't have made sense. And for me, it was kind of a relief to be able to say, like, 'Shit, man, whatever.' It was fun just to plug in and do it. But who knows--maybe my next solo album will be even trippier than those trippy Los Lobos records."

A propensity for psychedelia has been cropping up lately in live Los Lobos appearances, too. But while most observers have traced such aural elements to the group's participation in the Furthur Festival, a traveling circus put on by several surviving members of the Grateful Dead, Rosas says this shift in approach is more a matter of reconnecting with the music of the performers' youth. "We've been experienced, man," he says, laughing. "You know that whole jamming thing? I was in a band in 1970 that used to do that. It was a common thing to do, and a lot of people who are around now dig it. And since we get a big kick out of doing it, I think that's why it's been coming out."

In spite of such influences, Los Lobos didn't begin life as a favorite of L.A.'s acid-munchers. The band formed in 1974, when Rosas, Hidalgo, Perez and Conrad Lozano were all students at Garfield High School, but its initial focus on rock and roll swiftly gave way to mainly acoustic music associated with their heritage. They made their living playing weddings and parties before landing their first steady gig in 1978, at a Mexican restaurant. The group was eventually sacked because of its excessive volume, but by then, the Los Lobos style, which juxtaposed Mexican music, Tex-Mex, rock, folk and blues, had come together. Before long, Rosas and his friends were citizens in Southern California's nascent punk and new-wave community, led at the time by acts such as X and the Blasters, whose saxophonist, Berlin, ultimately joined Los Lobos.

In 1983, ...And a Time to Dance, an EP by the act, was released by Slash Records, an indie that eventually hooked up with Warner Bros., and quickly racked up critical accolades (the song "Anselma" won a Grammy) and a sizable following among college-radio programmers and listeners. That was followed a year later by How Will the Wolf Survive?, an LP that was solid from top to bottom--one of the genuine highlights of the year. By the Light of the Moon, from 1987, was praised as well, but it was overwhelmed in the public's mind by La Bamba, a movie biography of the late Richie Valens, who made the title song a smash in 1959. Los Lobos was a natural choice to perform Valens's material (his "Come On, Let's Go" turns up on ...And a Time to Dance), but the enormous success of the group's "La Bamba" cover overshadowed its own tunes--and for many listeners, this continues to be the case. Rosas concedes that the situation was frustrating at times.

"I don't want people to get the wrong idea," he says. "I love that song. We were playing it ten years before the movie, and when we did the movie, we played it in the same way. But the fact that it did what it did took us to a funny little place where we didn't want to be. It took us on the wrong road for a second, and we thought, 'That's fine, guys,' because it was a nice road. But we really wanted to get back to what we do."

To that end, Los Lobos delivered 1988's La Pistola y el Corazon, a back-to-its-roots collection, 1990's deep, accomplished The Neighborhood and 1992's Kiko, a legitimate mind-blower whose adventurous production values made the band sound completely fresh and utterly contemporary. "It was just a new road, but we felt very comfortable with it," Rosas says. "I was a huge Beatles freak when I grew up, so making Kiko was just like being back in junior high school. We would tell Tchad, 'Hey, let's put this on here,' and he would do it, and it would be great. And after that, Beck came out and did a lot of the same type of stuff. That's why I can't help but think that it was an influential record."

Unfortunately, neither Kiko nor its followup, 1996's similarly beguiling Colossal Head, moved an impressive number of units, thereby bringing long-simmering resentments to a boil. "You can say that the problem was that Kiko and Colossal Head were so far out, but we've been complaining about the way Warner Bros. was publicizing us as far back as By the Light of the Moon and The Neighborhood," Rosas notes. "They dropped the ball on everything, and we took a lot of shit in that regard for years. So we decided to move on."

In truth, things weren't quite that simple: It took Los Lobos the better part of two years to finagle its way off of Warner Bros. and onto Hollywood, a firm chosen because of its link to the Disney corporation. ("We're hoping to get into doing more soundtrack things," Rosas says.) But now the slate is clean, and after Rosas completes a tour with Soul Disguise, a new group he's assembled to play his solo tracks, he's looking forward to reuniting with Los Lobos in support of its forthcoming effort. "The album's like 'Colossal Head 2000,'" he points out. "There's a Sam and Dave kind of song on there, there's a Led Zeppelin kind of song, there's three songs that are sung in Spanish, and one of my songs is a cumbia. It's a cool record."

What if the folks in the front row respond to these compositions by screaming for "La Bamba"? Rosas finesses his answer to this question. "Actually, I don't have anything against people who do that," he says cautiously. "They're just music lovers, man."

Maybe so--but a good kick in the jaw might do them some good.

Cesar Rosas. 8 p.m. Monday, April 5, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $12.75, 303-443-3399.


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