One of the many beautiful things about Los Lobos is how, after so many decades, they can still turn on different audiences in different ways. One of America’s greatest roots-rock bands, “just another band from East L.A.” can take fans old and new through a tour of genres — Mexican or American folk, roadhouse blues, Louisiana swamp pop, or straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll, you name it, they can play it, and leave ’em wanting more. Having seen them play in different venues over the past 20-plus years, I’ve marveled at how they can tailor their set to a given show, from an all-encompassing set that spans their four decades, a tight compilation that includes their few hits (“La Bamba,” anyone?), or something more precise.
That latter approach is what Los Lobos provided fans at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell on Friday (April 29) at the Sheraton Fais Do Do State. Playing off a 2014 tour that celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Grammy Award-winning “La Pistola y El Corazon,” Los Lobos easily tore through that landmark work (an EP that clocks in at 25 minutes) while also delighting the audience with a range of other Mexican and Latin works — often introducing each one for a cultural context befitting a festival with the word “heritage” in the title. So instead of looking forward by showcasing their excellent new album, “Gates of Gold,” Los Lobos took a look back — way back.
There in a row stood the original members: Cesar Rosas (sporting his ubiquitous black shades), bassist Conrad Lozano on guitarron, Louie Perez, and David Hidalgo working his way through the guitar, the accordion and fiddle depending on his mood. Steve Berlin, a longtime member, remained frequently on the sidelines, occasionally popping out to add some beef with his massive, silver baritone saxophone.
For a 25-minute work of Latin folk, “La Pistola y El Corazon” covers a lot of ground, dipping at various times into conjunto, mariachi, Tex-Mex and Chicano rock at any given moment — every song feeling distinct and fresh from the other. Part of that is due to the dual threat of Rosas and Hidalgo trading lead on both guitar and vocals. This is where they have to each trim down their repertoire, Rosas shelving his passion for roadhouse blues and Hidalgo refraining from some of his more ruminative folk colorings. And yet they still breathe new life into vocal moment.
This is where their instruments serve them well, for if nothing else, Los Lobos could possibly be America’s greatest acoustic act — Hidalgo strumming his sturdy requinto jarocho when not on fiddle or accordion, Rosas plucking his huapanguera, and Perez sometimes furiously attacking “Howard,” his trusty six-string jarana. When they were all in full strum, the crowd practically swooned, especially on such memorable versions of “El Gusto,” “El Canelo” and the title track.
It became so blissful, the band holding the audience so easily in their hands, that when they broke into a more traditional version of “La Bamba” — which Richie Valens had compressed more accessibly into his 1958 hit — and the Cuban folk classic Guantamera (with Lozano taking his lone lead turn on vocals), it felt like Los Lobos were running up the score.
(Trivia: It should be noted that “La Pistola y El Corazon” was the band’s follow-up their amazing success performing “La Bamba,” and other Richie Valens tunes, for the movie soundtrack. While most fans and observers suggested they build on this rare moment of mainstream success, Los Lobos went in the completely opposite direction. Maybe this is why they failed this year to get voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.)
With barely an appreciation of the lyrics, it was easy to weep out of joy.
I watched as my wife swooned from song to song, caught up in an EP she had discovered years ago, in a department store of all places, and had spent the past couple weeks playing on a loop in anticipation of the show. I had proudly boasted of being the big Los Lobos fan in the household, but it was fun to sit back and watch her fall madly in love with this band on this, her second time seeing them live. The first time was more at a distance, on a double bill with Los Lonely Boys at an amphitheater outside Atlanta. This time was up close, practically at the barrier, behind other hardcore fans who’d camped out during the preceding set by the Honey Island Swamp Band to get into position. When her eyes weren’t closed, her face was beaming as Los Lobos strummed their way permanently into her heart.
Or corazon, if you will. As the opening of the song says (in English, anyway), “I don’t know how to tell you, don’t know how to explain that there is no remedy for what I feel inside.”
With Los Lobos, the only remedy is to keep rediscovering them, over and over again, in whatever way possible.