Legendary Tex-Mex rock band rolls into town after time off
Newest album is full of songs from California
If you’re a band that has been on the road for almost half a century, an unplanned hiatus might have unplanned benefits.
The pandemic was terrible for the live music industry. Even a band as storied as Los Lobos can’t survive forever with no income streams streaming.
But saxophonist Steve Berlin saw the upside.
“I got to stay home and spend time with my family,” he said in a phone interview with Whatzup. “Turns out we actually like each other. Who knew?”
Los Lobos performs Nov. 6 at the Clyde Theatre.
Live in L.A. — Mostly
Berlin has been the band’s droll spokesperson for many a year, despite not being an original member.
He joined in 1982, after he jumped ship from the legendary but listing band, The Blasters.
One constructive thing Los Lobos did with its downtime last year was record an album of covers, on which appears The Blasters’ “Flat Top Joint.”
The album is called Native Sons. The title refers to composers and musicians who came out of, or are somehow closely associated with, Los Angeles.
Berlin is the only member of the band who does not live in Los Angeles, so recording the album was a more difficult proposition for him.
“The other guys could just go home,” said the Portland, Oregon, resident. “I had to quarantine both ways.”
The band members all had suggestions for what they thought should go on the album, Berlin said. But they also reached out to record-collecting fanatics of their acquaintance and asked them to chip in with a few ideas.
“In some cases, we did (the songs suggested by the collectors) and in some cases, those songs put us in mind of other songs,” Berlin said.
The La Bomba Years
Los Lobos’ biggest claim to fame is a cover tune, one of the best.
The band provided the music for La Bamba, a 1987 biopic about Ritchie Havens. Their cover of the film’s title track is a model for how one revisits a popular song — it is faithful to Valens without diminishing Los Lobos.
It evokes Valens yet adds something new and essential to his most enduring hit.
Berlin said the band didn’t overthink how it was going to perform the songs on Native Sons.
“(Our approach) differed from song to song,” he said. “We definitely wanted to put our thumbprint on everything we touched. The only time we were trying to cop the same vibe and feel was on (Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Bluebird’). We just loved the way that one sounded.”
The album is meant to hearken back to a time when radio was more diverse and less corporatized.
“In the golden age of alternative radio, you could hear Sun Ray followed by Pentangle,” Berlin said. “All this incredible music.”
Berlin said that Los Lobos has always tried to conduct its career like the program directors at those freewheeling radio stations used to mix sounds.
“We’re not one thing,” he said. “We like to do different stuff.”
Berlin was a little worried about how the record would be received. When an artist who has been around a while does a covers album, it usually means he or she has run out of ideas or options or both.
“Cover albums, let’s be honest, are held in lower esteem,” he said. “It’s not the same as writing 12 new songs. I am fully cognizant of that fact. But conceptually, I thought it was a good thing to do.”
Critics have agreed with Berlin on that last point.
Not Winding Down After All
When Whatzup interviewed Berlin in 2019, he said the band seemed to be winding down and he wasn’t too happy about it.
“Well, I hate that I sounded like I was complaining about anything,” he said more recently. “You know, they’re all grandads now and they kind of like being around their grandkids. No one’s excited about touring. I’ll be honest. I like it. I look forward to it. But that’s just me.”
Berlin thinks the pandemic reminded the band that nothing is guaranteed.
“I feel like every show we get to play is a blessing,” he said. “Any show could be canceled at the last minute for God knows what. We’re so lucky to get to do this at all. We really need to honor each show and thank God — thank the higher power — that we get to do this at all.”
Berlin said the band plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2023 with a new album of original songs and other happenings, yet to be determined.