Is Los Lobos the Greatest California Band?

Is Los Lobos the Greatest California Band?
Adam Perry

Remember that scene in the classic ’80s biopic La Bamba when Ritchie Valens, played by Lou Diamond Phillips, is blowing the roof off a late-’50s party in Los Angeles with both Latinos and whites dancing their asses off to Mexican-American rock and roll? That feeling of joy, abandon and possibility — just before Ritchie’s misfit brother stumbles in and starts a brawl — is what it felt like at times last night at the Boulder Theater with Los Lobos (which provided much of the music in La Bamba) on stage and cries of Te amo! filling the marijuana-tinged air.

“We’re glad to be back in the land of weed,” cool-as-ice guitarist and singer Cesar Rosas said early in the band’s two-hour (mostly) acoustic set, which traversed roots rock, blues, psychedelia, hard rock and exuberant traditional Mexican. “But my ganja days are over now. I get all paranoid and shit. I get up here, like, 'Why are all these people staring at me?'”

In the midst of celebrating forty years since the release of their debut, Si Se Puede!, Los Lobos — still firmly entrenched in East L.A. — deserve all the staring, and dancing, they get. The six-piece Grammy-winning band, including all four original members (plus multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin and drummer Enrique Gonzalez), again called upon Boulder percussionist Scott Parker Mast to expand its Latin-rock sound. After the local drummer’s set with the now-defunct Chicha opening for Los Lobos two years ago, Rosas and company asked Parker Mast to sit in on congas, and he’s done so with the band in Colorado numerous times since.

That would be a surprising move for most internationally famous, forty-years-strong classic-rock groups, but the vibe at a Los Lobos concert, with the audience bouncing to authentic Mexican-American heaven like “Paquito Para Aqui," is like a big California family BBQ where everyone’s welcome.

Frontman David Hidalgo spent most of the evening lighting up the audience with deft runs on a classical guitar, but he moved to accordion for “Kiko” and a few other tunes, and at one point even performed a violin solo that was perhaps the show’s peak. Berlin, who has played with everyone from Deer Tick to John Lee Hooker, contributed keyboards, saxophone, flute and percussion.

The Boulder Theater show included songs from across Los Lobos’ career, from the band's time as a spry young Mexican-American wedding-and-dance act to 1984’s major-label breakthrough How Will the Wolf Survive? to last year’s diverse, explorative Gates of Gold. Rosas, looking badass as ever with his customary dark shades and Chuck Berry duck walk, engaged the Boulder crowd repeatedly, while the reserved Hidalgo — one of the truly underrated singers, songwriters and lead guitarists alive — humbly carried the music on his shoulders much of the evening.

Is Los Lobos the Greatest California Band?EXPAND
Adam Perry

Hidalgo, who rarely speaks on stage other than to briefly express gratitude, said after an equipment mishap, “Give us another five years and it’ll be a perfect show.” In response to Hidalgo’s quip, Rosas — who spoke to the crowd in Spanish several times and embraced a group of excited Latino fans after the show — immediately deadpanned, “We’re on a forty-year program.”

With some of the biggest names in rock history now passing away every week — a trend that will only intensify in the next few years — we recently lost founding members of two definitive California bands, the Eagles and Jefferson Airplane. (We also arguably lost Brian Wilson around 1968.) Taking into account their incredible longevity, sustained inclusion of the four original members, and continued release of relevant, quality albums (while contemporaries are either disbanded or mired in nostalgia), could Los Lobos — who were just nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — be the greatest California band of all time?

Answering that question isn’t nearly as important as making sure to see these guys while you still can. 

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