The versatile Los Angeles band Los Lobos — with its two iconic singer/guitarists, César Rosas and David Hidalgo — formed in 1973 and entered the national consciousness big time in 1987 with a faithful cover of “La Bamba,” a surprise hit from the Ritchie Valens biopic. 30 years and numerous Grammy awards later, the critically acclaimed Latin rock group (amazingly still with its core members) has retained the creativity and edge that arguably was to the ’80s underground scene in L.A. like the Pogues was to early-’80s United Kingdom: a talented, forward-thinking act putting a heaping spoonful of truly traditional music into the exciting cauldron of what would later be called “alternative.”
With the band playing regular headlining shows in recent years at the Boulder Theater, the Fox and the Fillmore, plus opening slots at Red Rocks, it was a huge surprise to learn that Los Lobos had booked two nights at the 400-capacity “gastro-brothel” Ophelia’s, near Coors Field. The capacity was shrunken to more like 250 with $70 V.I.P. table seating on the upper (restaurant) level, looking down at the little Ophelia’s stage and its back wall, covered in old transistor radios.
At 10 p.m. on Friday, the sextet (with brilliant multi-instrumentalist and producer Steve Berlin adding flute, saxophone, keyboards and whatever the hell he wanted) opened its first set with “The Neighborhood,” a 1990 song about poverty and survival that pleads “Please bring peace” and coincidentally also opens the band’s last live album, 2013’s Disconnected in New York City. The fifty-minute first set showcased Los Lobos’ depth, spanning over 30 years of original tunes ranging from rumbling ’50s-style rock and roll to cumbia to a jammy cover of Traffic’s “Light Up or Leave Me Alone.”
Founding member, chief lyricist and original drummer Louie Pérez quietly held down center stage as usual, strumming his jarana (sort of a bass mandolin) and generally looking like the rock-band equivalent of Samuel L. Jackson’s Jules Winnfield from Pulp Fiction. At this point, Pérez has earned such universal respect from writing, recording, playing and singing Los Lobos tunes that he could sit in a rocking chair on stage like that old dude from Arrested Development and still, deservedly, get applause, a paycheck and zero questions asked.
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After a set break in which Rosas, in his customary dark shades, signed autographs and hung with concert-goers, Los Lobos got serious, opening its second half with “Viking,” a menacing, bouncing tale once featured in a Sopranos strip-club scene. Unfortunately, the big video screen above the stage at Ophelia’s — ostensibly there to give diners upstairs a more direct view of what’s going on below — featured images of what looked like alien planets, pool tables, schools of psychedelic fish or something. Perhaps it’s up to bands that play the unique two-year-old sex-themed venue (with a long, interesting and sordid history) to ask for nothing more than a streaming video of their performance if they don’t go for Wayne’s World-style seizure-inducing effects.
Anyway, the second set featured the heights of what Los Lobos has to offer, which was an incredible, unforgettable experience in such an intimate little venue. I had room to spin my date around as we danced to “Kiko"; Los Lobos’ hard-core Latino fans reveled in singing along to “Volver, Volver,” which harked back to the band’s early roots playing countless weddings and dances around L.A. as Los Lobos del Este (de Los Angeles); and Pérez replaced young Enrique “Bugs” González on drums for the more traditional tunes.
Los Lobos ended its second set with a Grateful Dead tribute pairing of “Not Fade Away" into "Bertha,” a longtime Los Lobos concert staple that’s grown tiresome for certain fans. Sure, Los Lobos opened for (and jammed with) the Dead, and Hidalgo was even floated as Jerry Garcia’s replacement after the jam-band legend passed away in 1995. Hidalgo can solo as good or better than anyone in the history of jam rock, but Los Lobos’ catalogue of original music is so much deeper and consistently interesting than even the Dead’s was, so why play “Bertha” at nearly every show?
Unfortunately, representatives from Ophelia’s did not respond to my inquiry about how they pulled off the impressive feat of booking such an acclaimed, storied act in their very small, relatively new venue, but I’m certainly not complaining. For Los Lobos' sake, I just hope the group — which absolutely deserves a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ASAP — isn’t playing the Lazy Dog in Boulder its next time here.