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June 30, 2011

USA: It’s been a long ride for Los Lobos

TORONTO, Ontario / / Music / June 27, 2011

By Greg Quill,  Entertainment Reporter

Los Lobos play the TD Toronto Jazz Festival on Tuesday.  
Drew Reynolds Photo

Drawing liberally from rock, Tex-Mex, country, folk, R&B, blues, and traditional Spanish and Mexican music, Los Angeles band Los Lobos has occupied its own niche in North American popular music for more than 30 years.

They have expertly dodged stylistic dead ends while unselfconsciously indulging the whims of an ever changing, but always well educated audience.

The band’s presence among the eclectic acts on this year’s Toronto Jazz Festival bill — they’re performing Tuesday night with Texas-based Chicano rock power trio Los Lonely Boys on the festival’s Metro Square main stage — is no surprise to Steve Berlin (right), Los Lobos’ keyboardist and horn player. He spoke to the Star a few days ago by phone from Seville, Spain, where the quintet has developed a dedicated following, after appearing there in festivals of almost every genre and format. Photo: © Jim McCarthy

“Even bluegrass . . . we’ve done a few of those over the years,” Berlin said, after agreeing to partake in the following Q&A:

Q: Is the ability to adapt to audiences’ specific genre expectations one of the secrets of Lobos’ longevity?

A: What gives us the freedom to play for so many different kinds of audiences is that we can shape-shift as the situation demands. We seem able to make people happy regardless of the milieu.

Q: With 19 studio albums and half a dozen collaborations to your credit, are you able to pull material at will from what amounts to a vast repertoire?

A: With the proviso that it won’t be the tightest performance in history, yes. We can get away with murder, sometimes. If they want to hear it, we’ll give it a shot. It keeps things exciting.

Q: Los Lobos seems to be a band that’s happy in its musical skin, a sort of family united in a singular vision and purpose. But after 30 years together, there must be some frayed edges.

A: It’s not as rosy as you’d like to think. It’s a family full of A-type personalities, but that’s part of the reason we are who we are and where we are. A band that’s been together for so long and can still keep making music together doesn’t have a lot to complain about.

Q: Los Lobos seems unusually prolific. Do you constantly turn out new songs regularly and go into the studio when you have enough to make a record?

A: It’s not like that at all. We write, in general, only when an album has to be made, and even then it’s down to the 11th hour and 59th minute and 59th second. We don’t sit on the bus jamming. Writing’s like homework to us. It doesn’t usually happen till the last deadline has passed and we’ve been sitting around the studio for a couple of days with nothing to play, in abject terror. Slowly but surely, pieces start coming together and after five or six weeks, it’s pretty well done.

Q: Is there anything in Los Lobos’ music that appeals specifically to jazz fans?

A: Most of my musical heroes are jazz musicians, not that it’s particularly reflected in what we play. I’m a saxophone player, so the people I revere are the great sax players of the late 1960s and early ’70s, people like Archie Shepp and Gene Ammons, though they just sit in the back of my head most of the time. I think we owe our place in jazz festivals to the fact that we’re eclectic and like taking chances. Jazz audiences seem more open to decent musicianship. If you stray too far from the blues at blues festivals, those people start to get very strange looks on their faces. Personally, I prefer jazz audiences.

Q: What elements in a new song qualify it as Los Lobos-worthy?

A: We’ve developed a large and unique vocabulary over the years. Not much is presented that’s too far out to fly. We’ve never recorded more than is needed . . . we often come up with less, then add a cover of something everyone likes. We’re not one of those bands with a lifetime’s worth of outtakes or alternative versions locked away in vaults. If a piece of music doesn’t work, we excise it, or change it into something we can use. We don’t record it and save it for posterity. All our demos become masters. It’s going to be a short day at the archaeological dig when they start looking for lost Lobos tapes.

Q: One bad Los Lobos experience?

A: We’ve found ourselves in some horribly cheesy circumstances over the years, but the worst that comes to mind was Woodstock 99, the so-called 30th anniversary of the original Woodstock. There was a really bad vibe in that place . . . 100-plus degrees, and corporate greed and nastiness everywhere. The whole scene was angry. And as soon as we started playing, we knew it was the wrong song at the wrong time in the wrong place, and everything started sliding downhill. Later that night, the riots and rapes started.

Q: One good Los Lobos memory?

A: A couple of nights ago in Toulouse . . . full moon, warm setting, one of those times when everything lined up perfectly. One big moment that stands out was when we were lucky enough to play at the Clinton Inaugural in 1992, after he took over from Bush I . . . it really did feel like America’s Berlin Wall had come down and that the evil forces had been pushed back. We also got to play for Obama a couple of months into his administration at a Latin music celebration at the White House. It didn’t feel like an official event, just a cool party in someone’s really cool house. I remember thinking how long it had taken America to get to that place and how glad I was to be there.

Copyright 2011 Torstar Media Group.

Seniors World Chronicle adds:
Los Lobos (The Wolves), the Mexican-American roots-rock group of East Los Angeles, California, has been active and performing and releasing records since 1973. Members are: David Hidalgo (aged 56), Cesar Rosas (56), Conrad Lozano (60),  Louie Perez (58) and Steve Berlin (55)

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