When a band that’s been around just two years short of half a century puts out an album of covers, you might be tempted to think they were creatively running on fumes, about to run out of gas. But when Los Lobos creates an album celebrating the musical influences that they took in growing up in East L.A., where they started out playing traditional Mexican music around the neighborhood for block parties and weddings, before earning the respect of rock audiences when opening for Public Image Ltd. and The Clash, and around the L.A. punk scene with bands like X and The Blasters. Two years back, they came to town to play a show on the bill with The Mavericks, and opened playing acoustic instruments and accordions playing music that they learned from their families, some of which showed up on their 1988 release, La Pistola y el Corazon, then transitioning to electric guitars for the band’s hit cover of “La Bamba,” for the 1987 bio-pic of Ritchie Valens’ life, and revisiting many of the high spots from their long and storied recording and touring careers—their early Mex-Americana albums with T Bone Burnett, How Will the Wolf Survive? and By the Light of the Moon, more experimental albums like Kiko and Colossal Head, and more recent works like Tin Can Trust (’10) and Gates of Gold (’15).
On Native Sons, Los Lobos seek to pay tribute to the robust, diverse musical traditions that thrived side by side in the melting pot of Los Angeles. The album opens with the 60’s rock & roll of “Love Special Delivery” by Thee Midniters, a Chicano band who became local heroes when they took their song to number one on the national radio charts. From the swinging bassline, fast-paced dance rhythm, swinging horns and smoking guitar solo lay a groundwork that continues to thrill, especially in the talented hands of these veteran players. “Misery” follows, from that same decade, this time tapping an R&B feel that dates to Motown’s move to the West Coast. Still in the 60’s but another world away in Laurel Canyon, the band combines two from Stephen Stills from his Buffalo Springfield days, “Bluebird” and “For What It’s Worth,” the latter’s political commentary just as relevant in the era of Black Lives Matter protests, those ringing guitar harmonics with David Hidalgo offering his best rendition of Neil Young’s guitar sound.
With “Los Chucos Suaves,” Los Lobos dig back into the mix of Latin American rhythms with jazz and pop flairs in Pachuco music, which is sung in Spanish but words like “boogie woogie, jitterbug” fail to make a full translation. Here Steve Berlin takes his baritone sax out for a fast run, before another jazzy solo from Hidalgo, one of the most under-celebrated guitar talents in rock today, and then a big Latin percussion breakdown. They return to that classic rock L.A. sound for Jackson Browne’s pop ballad, “Jamaica Say You Will,” but then they go further back in time for smoky R&B sock-hop dance track “Never No More,” with lots more sax, and the 50’s rock & roll of The Premier’s “Farmer John,” smartly planting the album’s one original track, the title song, in the middle with it’s mid-tempo early pop/rock feel making it blend right in. “Dichoso,” another Spanish jazzy pop song, this time originally by “Willie Bobo,” displays the bands ever amazing versatility once more.
And you really can’t do L.A. justice without at least a nod to the Beach Boys, which they get with “Sail On, Sailor,” but the band turns up the heat for their long and glorious update of “The World Is a Ghetto,” by the band War, mixing the quieter jazzy solos with the big funkier chorus, supported with guest vocalists Willie G. (who actually sang on the original recording), his son Jacob G. and Barrence Whitfield, with Latin percussionist Camilo Quinones adding rhythm and spice, while Hidalgo and Berlin stretch out and do their solo thing. Then celebrating the band’s early days, the hot rockin’ Blaster’s song, “Flat Top Joint,” giving Berlin a chance to pay back some respect from his previous band, before joining Los Lobos in ’84. To close out this fine album of L.A. originals, the band dives in the instrumental “Where Lovers Go,” with hints of a surf guitar sound, for one more reminder that this fine band of musicians can pretty much play anything they set their minds to.
Which, of course, is made all the more fun when you remember that Hidalgo, second guitarist and vocalist Cesar Rosas, one-time drummer and current third guitar and lyricist Louie Perez, and bassist Conrad Lozano, have been playing together since the early 70’s, growing up in the same neighborhood in East L.A. My one question, was a track by Santana just a little too on the nose? Still, here on their 17th studio album, Los Lobos have shown us again and again how this wolf will survive? It’s by playing soulful music with lots of heart, and an impressive level of technical prowess, something that manages to make an album full of covers an outstanding artistic statement by a great American band.
Key Tracks: “The World Is a Ghetto” / “Bluebird/For What It’s Worth” / “Love Special Delivery”
Artists With Similar Fire: The Mavericks / Santana / Tedeschi Trucks Band
Los Lobos Review History: Disconnected In New York City (2013)
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb