Talk about playing a tough crowd.
When Los Lobos signed to Slash Records in 1983, after years of playing weddings and community centers in the barrios of East Los Angeles, they often found themselves booked into conspicuous supporting slots for other bands on the label’s roster. There were the Blasters, whose all-over-the-place barroom rock sound had a lot in common with Lobos’ infectious crazy quilt of blues, rock, Tex-Mex and norteño.
And there was X, whose shows were like homing beacons for every gob-hawking punk rocker in a twenty-mile radius. Imagine Los Lobos tenderfooting their way onstage in a theater clinking with safety pins and dog collars, bristling with liberty spikes and crinkling with paper sacks of airplane glue. They must have looked for all the world like a lost mariachi band.
The fact that they rarely failed to win over crowds that only minutes before had been clamoring for their blood is certainly satisfying, if slightly irrelevant. What matters is that Los Lobos had cojones that clank.
Apart from endearing them to rather some unlikely audiences and earning them yards and yards of street cred in the rock community (as if they hadn’t already paid their dues—they’d been around since 1974), the band’s take-it-by-the-horns MO and promising seven-song Slash debut, …and a Time to Dance, impressed Blasters saxophonist Steve Berlin into jumping ship and joining Los Lobos in time for their first full-length, 1984’s practically perfect How Will the Wolf Survive (which album still holds down spots in my various pedantic Top Ten lists of this or that kind of album: Best Album I Ever Bought on a Hunch (it had a purple wolf on the cover. Like I was going to not buy it?), Most Excitement I Ever Felt Hearing an Album for the First Time (third of fourth from the top, but it still had to beat out a lot of punk rock to get there), Special Jury Selection for Wistful Acoustic Instrumental, the supremely beautiful “Lil’ King of Everything,”)
Los Lobos blossomed with Steve Berlin, although the much-anticipated 1987 follow-up to Wolf came off as a disappointing assimilationist gamble for mainstream success. By the Light of the Moon was a slick mess of decent but overproduced songs that, for the first time, just didn’t work together. For fans worried that the band was beginning to trade complexity for increased accessibility, it looked like the wolf might not survive the transition to the mainstream.
But, as anyone who’s ever spent time near a jukebox from Casablanca to Connecticut can tell you, the band quickly righted itself that same year and made it huge, logically enough, by re-recording the repertoire of Richie Valens for the soundtrack to La Bamba. Listen carefully. Somewhere in the world, the ferociously catchy title track is playing right now, and Los Lobos—David Hildalgo, Louie Perez, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano and Steve Berlin—have stayed, comfortably, just at the edge of the limelight for the past decade. Looks like the wolf is doing just fine.
Los Lobos close the Friday night lineup at the Rock the Rockies Festival in Cardwell, Montana’s LaHood Park. Tickets for the festival are $40 per day or $100 for the whole weekend. For more information, call 1-406-287-5655.