Thunder and lightning and buckets of rain. In the hotel lobby bar of the Doubletree Hotel, members of Los Lobos are hanging out, waiting the word on whether their headlining set at the Houston International Festival is canceled. Outside the window is a strobe-lit storm from a B movie.
These men have played together for 40 years, from the flea markets of Pico Rivera to the top tier of festivals much bigger than this one. The appearance fee’s been paid, there’s the NBA playoffs on TV; why not just take the night off? But the mood in the lobby bar is one of desire. To play! Every ominous message relayed from one of their roadies is met with a sigh.
“If we don’t play, it’s like we came all this way for nothing,” says Steve Berlin, the band’s sax player and sometime producer. After Houston, the band will fly home to Los Angeles, then bounce back to New Orleans to play Jazzfest, and then it’s back to L.A. for their second annual Cinco de Mayo festival. Los Lobos headlines the sixth Pachanga Latino Music Fest at Fiesta Gardens on Saturday.
Houston was for the money, yes, but it was also going to be a fun two hours for a band that’s recently ditched the setlist in favor of reading the moment. Even during the time that “La Bamba” was atop the pop charts in 1987, the Chicano rock band has never toured for more than five weeks at a time. They have their families and their other pursuits: Chief lyricist and maiden drummer Louie Perez is a playwright and painter, guitarist David Hidalgo is an in-demand sessionista, saxman Steve Berlin is a noted producer who recently wrapped work on the next album by Austin’s Grupo Fantasma.
But Berlin says Los Lobos is priority numero uno. When the band, which brought traditional Mexican music and Chicano pop to the indie rock world with sensational debut EP “… And a Time to Dance” in 1983, is onstage in full-on musical connection, it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of.
“OK, we’re on!” the road manager tells the band and they’re all out the door and into the waiting van. Astronauts cleared for outer space. Unfortunately, this mission was called back when the storm got even worse. Having seen what they’d be up against, the members now seemed relieved.
At the bar, where Berlin nurses a Fat Tire beer and watches the ending of a double-overtime basketball game, he talks about how the new spontaneity of calling out songs onstage has given the veterans a new appreciation of their catalog. Their next album, recorded live in New York City, finds Hidalgo, Perez, Berlin, Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano performing acoustic versions of old songs not as well known as “Will the Wolf Survive?,” “One Time One Night,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “A Matter of Time” and “Let’s Say Goodnight.”
Los Lobos is mainly a nostalgia act these days — in the way that Pearl Jam is. They still make records, 2010’s “Tin Can Trust” was the latest, but the Wolves get their prey these days by howling the heck out of their “hits.” During the ’80s, Los Lobos was arguably the best band in America, and they remember that when they play now. But this band, formed in 1973 by four Garfield High classmates from East L.A., have always recalled the past. After they broke through to the mainstream with a Ritchie Valens cover from the ’50s, they took their Latino legacy tour back even further with 1988’s “La Pistola y El Corazon,” an album of traditional Mexican music.
“I think it was really smart to follow ‘La Bamba’ with ‘La Pistola,’” says Berlin, a native of Philadelphia who was accepted into the band of brothers in 1984. “We got right back to being who we are.” Whether they play R&B like “I Got Loaded” or a Norteño song such as “Anselma,” Los Lobos is a band of memory with purpose. Their music is the soundtrack of the Mexican-American experience, which makes them the perfect band for Pachanga Fest, which was started to give Hispanic musicians and fans the beautiful outdoor days enjoyed by predominantly Anglo crowds at the Austin City Limits Music Festival (where Los Lobos was a first-year headliner).
Berlin first met the members of Los Lobos while a member of the Blasters, the L.A. roots rock kingpins of the early ’80s. The band from East L.A. was signed to Slash Records, which was also the home of the Blasters.
“The Blasters was like a bar fight every time there was a big decision to be made,” says Berlin, a Jewish hornblower from Philly who migrated to L.A. in the mid-‘70s with the Beckmeir Brothers, a rock/soul band. “Then to work with Los Lobos, a very democratic band, was just night and day.” The Blasters were lead by brothers Phil and Dave Alvin, but Los Lobos felt more like a family.
After he co-produced the ’83 Lobos EP with T-Bone Burnett, and started sitting in regularly with the band, Berlin was asked to join and he jumped that sinking U.S.S. Alvin and got himself a good-paying gig for the next 30 years. “David (guitarist/accordionist Hidalgo) is the certified musical genius of the group, so what he has to say goes a long way,” Berlin says when asked to describe the group’s decision-making dynamic. “And Louie (chief lyricist Perez) has his say. It’s all very respectful. If anyone feels really strongly about something, that’s usually the deciding factor.”
It’s a band that, Berlin says, is always able to pull something out of itself when the occasion calls for it. He uses the making of “Colossal Head” in 1996 as an example. “We had just finished doing the soundtrack to ‘Desperado’ and we were pretty much spent,” he says. “We love Robert Rodriguez, but he sucked everything out of us. We gave him every idea we had.” The band arrived at the studio empty-headed, but once they started jamming together, the songs crept out. The parts added up to an amazing whole and “Colossal” was met with rave reviews. It didn’t sell, though, so the band was dropped by Warner Brothers. But “Mas y Mas” from those sessions has become a set-capping crowd-pleaser.
Among the band’s credits is an appearance on Paul Simon’s modern classic “Graceland,” but it’s an experience that Berlin once described in an interview as “not a pleasant deal for us.” He claims that Simon took full songwriting credit for a song that Los Lobos shared with him in the studio. The song in question became “All Around the World or the Myth of Fingerprints.” Simon has denied the allegation.
At Houston, the conversation centered on the present, with Berlin gushing about Austin’s Grupo Fantasma, who play Pachanga a couple hours before Los Lobos. Berlin says he’s anxious to hear how some of the new material he produced with the band at Public Hi-Fi goes over with the crowd.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the record I made with Grupo,” he says. “I think all their previous records are amazing. I love the Brownout stuff, too. But when we were talking about the new one I made it clear I didn’t want to make a placeholder, you know, a record like the others. We had to raise the bar, take the sound further.” The band agreed and, Berlin says, came through on that promise. Crediting trombonist Mark “Speedy” Gonzales with “genius arrangements,” Berlin likens the new Grupo record to 1940s Cuban jazz. “Speedy’s got the whole history of Latin horns at his fingertips.”
Since that session wrapped earlier this year (Fantasma’s still label-shopping), Berlin has used the Grupo horns on every subsequent session he’s produced, including Deer Tick, Leftover Salmon and Crystal Bowersox of “American Idol” fame.
“Wait until you hear the Deer Tick record,” Berlin says with a smile. “There’s one track that sounds more like a Grupo record than a Deer Tick record.”
The past and future of Latin rock will take the stages of Pachanga this weekend. There’s Intocable and there’s Flaco Jimenez. There’s 3 Ball MTY and Beatles cover band Mariachi Mystery Tour. From Austin, there’s Vallejo and Grupo Fantasma. But sitting at the head of the table is Los Lobos, that extraordinary band from East L.A. that transcends race and class.
Pachanga Latino Music Festival
When: Friday and Saturday. Los Lobos headlines Saturday.
Where: Fiesta Gardens, 2100 Jesse E. Segovia St.
Cost: $39 for Friday, $65 to $143 for a two-day pass, $39 to $75 for Saturday. Kids 12 and younger free with a ticketed adult.
Coming up: Look for more on Pachanga Fest in Thursday’s Austin360.