Last October, I had the honor of attending a traditional Mexican wedding in Querétaro, and one of its unforgettable peaks was an otherworldly performance by a local mariachi band. Saturday night at the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, the legendary East Los Angeles group Los Lobos took me back to Querétaro, and Los Lobos’ jubilant 1970s roots as a busy young wedding band, with a soaring set of Latin folk music on traditional acoustic instruments.
Around 8:30 p.m., the four O.G. members of Los Lobos — who started making music together as teenagers 45 years ago — entered the Stanley’s concert hall and mesmerized the seated audience with an hour in which each musician took turns singing lead. “We’re going back to our roots tonight with some Mexican folk music,” the sun-glassed Cesar Rosas told the crowd — really the only time during the opening acoustic set that Los Lobos, with the pace of a Ramones show, took a breath between songs.
As the original Lobos — Louie Pérez on jarana, Rosas and David Hidalgo on acoustic guitars, and Conrad Lozano on bass — traversed energetic, soulful Mexican, Cuban and Colombian folk music and Pérez’s signature song, “Saint Behind the Glass,” I came to understand why the early-1980s L.A. punk scene embraced Los Lobos in much the same way that the English punk scene embraced the Pogues. As punk rock, a means of breaking the oppression of musical conformity, ironically became formulaic itself, there was nothing as pure — and thus as punk — as feverish, honest and literate traditional music.
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What’s more, played on traditional acoustic Mexican instruments with all the freedom and energy of youth – still potent after 45 years together – Los Lobos’ most powerful music, much like the Pogues’, is exactly the kind of rebellious art that could make Trump’s wall crumble to pieces if it’s ever built.
At the Stanley, Los Lobos played a fast-paced, explosive version of the 110-year-old (at least) Mexican song “La Bamba” in its opening acoustic set, and then played its number-one-hit version of “La Bamba,” from the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic, to conclude a full-band rock-and-roll electric set, and the evening. In between, Los Lobos – as ever – expertly kicked the American musical canon around, with blues, alt-rock, Latin rock, bar-room rockabilly, and a few not-too-noodly Grateful Dead tributes.
Hidalgo, Los Lobos’s hulking, sweet-voiced lead singer and guitarist, was unsurprisingly the night’s MVP. In musician circles, complaints abound that Los Lobos is not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and appreciations abound for Hidalgo, noting that with just a stock Stratocaster in his hands, he's as good as any lead guitarist on earth. But, as the Blasters and others did for Los Lobos when they were just kids, Hidalgo and company also know how to send the elevator back to the bottom. This time, it was to bring the brilliant Denver guitarist Taylor Scott on stage, with his Les Paul and Willie Nelson braids, to slay on Duane Allman-esque lead guitar throughout the show’s last batch of rollicking tunes.
“This not being able to breathe [at Estes Park’s 7,500 feet] is making me high,” Hidalgo said at one point. For “music lovers,” as Rosas called the crowd, Los Lobos’s ability to bring its melting pot of American music to a boil was perhaps intoxicating enough.