Los Lobos are America’s Band
by Marshall Bowden
Los Lobos are an underappreciated American treasure. The band’s ability to play a variety of music authentically and enthusiastically is stronger than just about any current band I can think of. They’ve been around for over forty years with the same personnel, and they have a slew of records, both studio and live, to show for it. They can be the best mariachi band you’ve ever heard one minute, and the next they are playing Neil Young’s ‘Cinnamon Girl’ for an encore.
Yet they are often overlooked in discussions of great American bands from the rock and roll era. They have written plenty of great songs of their own, songs that have been covered by other artists, but they have a long tradition of playing cover versions in their shows that no doubt stems from their early experience as a wedding band.
There are a few reasons for doing cover albums. One is to demonstrate the ability of a band to mimic the style of another group that they admire. Another is to pay tribute to the music that came before and laid the path for others to follow. This second reason is the one that applies most directly to Los Lobos’ latest recording Native Sons. It’s a tribute to the music of L.A., where the members of Los Lobos were born and played lots of gigs both in their East L.A. neighborhood and in punk clubs on Sunset Strip, playing alongside bands like X and The Blasters who shared their multifaceted approach to rock music.
In his 1997 induction of Buffalo Springfield to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Tom Petty pointed to the group’s artistic diversity: “They were fringe and paisley; they were the city, and they were the canyons…” In terms of complementary opposites he could be talking about Los Lobos, a group that came out of East L.A.’s Chicano culture and fueled their versions of traditional Mexican music and Latino garage rock with the energy and enthusiasm of the city’s white punk scene.
Native Sons reminds me in many ways of The Band’s Moondog Matinee, another album that was meant to pay tribute to musical forbears and influences. It’s one of the finest cover albums in rock music because it is a personal project that is heartfelt and not a cash grab or merely a collection of songs that the artist liked. The Band recorded an album of songs that they loved and enjoyed playing, but the programming of the record was done very carefully, so that it resembled a club set that a band like The Hawks or The Band might play in a roadhouse or juke joint. Moondog Matinee is NOT, as is sometimes suggested, a set of actual tunes that The Band played in their previous incarnation as The Hawks, but it is put together tightly as a club set would be.
Los Lobos, like The Hawks/Band, are very much a walking jukebox of a band, able to play everything from rockabilly and punk to mariachi music and show tunes. The fact that they settled on recording songs by L.A. bands from different eras gives the album the same kind of authentic focus and deep feeling that is present on Moondog Matinee. In addition, Los Lobos are capable of sounding very much like themselves even when they are covering other artists’ songs, which is also something that you could say about The Band.
Los Lobos opens with Thee Midniters’ “Love Special Delivery” using Steve Berlin’s sax to mimic the earlier band’s pioneering use of horns in a manner that became popular with the rise of groups like Ides of March and Blood, Sweat & Tears. But Los Lobos is cleaner in the drums and bass department, giving the track an extra edge.
They cover two songs by Buffalo Springfield, running them together. “Bluebird” is true to its psychedelic roots, but David Hidalgo’s vocal is less clipped, its rounded tones emphasizing the beauty of the melody. The second half is a guitar meltdown that really captures the same kind of interplay as Rich Furay, Stephen Stills, and Neil Young on electric and acoustic guitars. They reference the original track’s finale with a gentle instrumental segment that introduces “For What It’s Worth.” Though it’s a song that seems to apply to every generation’s struggles, it was originally written in reference to the infamous riots on Sunset Strip, further cementing its place in the history of L.A. rock.
Other tracks of note are the amazing “Los Chucos Suaves”, originally recorded by Lalo Guerrero, a bandleader known as the father of Chicano music. Guerrero merged the hipster jive of swing and R&B music with Spanish language lyrics, creating a whole new sound. Later in his career he was inspired to write several corridos about Cesar Chavez and the plight of Mexican migrant workers in America. Here the band leans on its wedding band roots, playing up a storm that is at once respectful of Guerrero’s original even while it surpasses its sheer energy. On the other hand, they give Jackson Browne’s gorgeous “Jamaica Say You Will” a more relaxed feel by trading the original’s acoustic piano for a Fender Rhodes and making it a more guitar-centric track.
“Everybody picked a favorite song, or a song from a favorite band,” bassist Conrad Lozano told the L.A. Times. Turns out Lozano is the Beach Boys fan who voted for the inclusion of “Sail On Sailor”, a song from the California band’s 1973 Holland album. It’s a great version of a song that captures its weariness even while providing a brighter beat and some nice guitar ornamentation.
Maybe the best thing I can say about Native Sons is that the lone original, the album’s title track, sounds just as much like a classic tune as anything else on the record. That’s a sign of the personal nature of this project for Los Lobos, and it’s why Native Sons will be in heavy rotation for me as we head towards the year’s end.