I take issue with the idea that the Band was a quintessential “roots-rock” outfit – as if it were that simple! So the proto-ambient dream pop of “Whispering Pines” is roots music? The sly musical theater structure of “When You Awake”? “Jawbone,” with its multiple meter changes and Aaron Copeland quotes? (Well, I suppose that Copeland was a “roots” composer of sorts – but not until after he had learned and abandoned 12-tone serialism.) The Band, for me, was an odd kind of barnyard/progressive: a chamber group dressed, self-consciously, in traditionalist garb. “Roots” was their specimen for study, not their lens. They weren’t Americana, but a pretty smart Canadian commentary thereupon.
As such, though their influence is wide and evergreen, the Band has few legitimate heirs amongst many claimants. To find one, I would argue, look to America’s other border – the one where Los Lobos came from. Like the Band, Los Lobos are great roots confusionists: progressive and wildly experimental, but easy to mistake for a terrific bar-rock band with a little extra chili and a fondness for the Norteño and mariachi of their youths.
Like the Band, the four founding members of Los Lobos – all Mexican Americans from the barrios of East LA – had been playing out and melding influences for a number of years before they rose to national attention with their 1984 major-label debut, How Will the Wolf Survive? In fact, their first indie record came out in 1978. Its title should have tipped us off that something strange was brewing in the barrio: Just Another Band from East LA. The winking reference, of course, is to the most formidable of all the Californian musical tricksters: Frank Zappa.
From the get-go, the kids in Los Lobos were savvy and self-aware in their cultural and musical experimentation. Like Zappa’s, Los Lobos’ fusions and assimilations have always been playful and irreverent (though, unlike Zappa’s, never offered in pure mockery). The fact that they often sound so traditional – whether playing an old blues, a country song or a Mexican dance – is just another way of saying that they are really, really good.
The centerpiece of my argument would be Kiko, Los Lobos’ psychedelic/roots masterpiece: one of the great albums of the ‘90s, and maybe my favorite work by the esteemed production team of Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake, who, for a time, were the choice du jour when you wanted your sounds artfully warped and disfigured (not a great choice for Bonnie Raitt, it turned out). The follow-up to Kiko, the Froom/Blake-produced Colossal Head, is difficult but rewarding. In the opinion of some, it’s a cautionary example of the experimentalism getting the better of the bedrock pop values. I say that it’s a pretty hot record and you should check it out; but Kiko first, of course, if you don’t already know it.
There’s a reason that Los Lobos can do no wrong no matter how far out they go, and its name is David Hidalgo. The golden-throated singer, hyperarticulate lead guitarist, slick multi-instrumentalist and songwriter makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way. His delivery is unconsciously effortless and unassuming – kind of like vintage Steve Winwood’s. And if someone ever convinced Hidalgo to drop his axe and go dance for the camera, as Winwood did circa “Roll with It,” I am sure that it would be equally catastrophic.
But the point is that it would never happen. Hidalgo is legendarily attention-averse. He lurks in the background of their press photos, looking more like Cesar Rosas’ hulking security guy than the most important member of the band and one of the most talented cats in all of rock.
After my friend Dave Wills interviewed Los Lobos in-studio for Sirius Satellite Radio, he described them as affable, unpretentious, completely disinterested in the interview and principally concerned with the whereabouts of some sandwiches that had been promised. Hidalgo, Dave said, pulled a French leave: didn’t say a word and just split (after securing sandwiches, presumably). There is also a reason why you may not know the music of Los Lobos as well as you should, and its name is David Hidalgo.
But everyone knows Los Lobos’ reputation as a live band. They’ve been at it (prepare yourself) for 40 years now. Check out 2012’s smoldering, elegant and sort-of-acoustic live effort Disconnected in New York if you want to know whether they still bring it. Or better yet: Go see Los Lobos at the Bearsville Theater – one of great progressive roots bands ever visiting the hallowed shrine of another.
Los Lobos special Mardi Gras show, Tuesday, March 4, 8 p.m., $75/$65/$55/$40, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, www.bearsvilletheater.com.