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From the Vaults

Los Lobos Set Captures an Enduring Southland Original

'El Cancionero' traces the maturing of the band's heartfelt, uplifting sound.

November 21, 2000|ROBERT HILBURN | TIMES POP MUSIC CRITIC

Few of the 5,000 or so rock fans who saw Los Lobos open for Johnny Rotten's post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. at the Olympic Auditorium in May 1980 had ever heard of the East Los Angeles group--and even fewer figured they'd ever run across it again.

In true punk spirit, Rotten liked the unexpected, which is no doubt why he chose the old boxing and wrestling palace as the concert site, and why he selected an equally offbeat opening act.

Los Lobos had been playing Mexican folkloric music and rock 'n' roll for years in East Los Angeles, progressing from backyard parties and weddings to restaurants and college campuses. But the quartet was still largely a stranger to the city's rock scene when it was asked to play some of the traditional tunes to open the PiL concert.

The choice provided a touch of regional color to the show, and it also provoked part of the audience, which probably delighted Rotten. Some in the crowd responded to the group's acoustic music by throwing cups, spitballs and a few bottles at the stage.

After five or so songs, the band headed for safety. The audience then turned its attention to the headliner, no doubt figuring that was the last it had seen of Los Lobos.

But the wolf has survived.

Soon after the Olympic show, the group--singer-guitarists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, drummer Louie Perez and bassist Conrad Lozano--began venturing into Hollywood clubs, where it began building a legacy that is celebrated in "El Cancionero Mas y Mas," an extraordinary four-disc set that traces the band from its pre-Olympic days through its international success with the "La Bamba" soundtrack album and beyond.

**** Los Lobos' "El Cancionero Mas y Mas," Rhino/Warner Archives. "OK, guys, we're rolling," a voice says at the start of "Guantanamera," the set's opening track--and the group has been rolling ever since.

Los Lobos had been together for three years by the time it decided in 1977 to work on an album of Mexican folk music. "Los Lobos Del Este De Los Angeles/(Just Another Band from East L.A.)," which was financed privately and sold mostly by the band members, has just been re-released by Los Lobos' current label, Hollywood Records. This boxed set contains two songs from that Spanish-language album.

By the time the group recorded the mini-album ". . . And a Time to Dance" in 1983, it had created enough of a buzz on the Hollywood club scene to be signed by Slash Records, an influential local label that was also home to the Blasters and X.

"Dance," sung mostly in English, celebrated the group's diverse musical influences--from the rockabilly/blues edges of "Why Do You Do" to the zydeco inflections of "Let's Say Goodnight" to the folk roots of "Anselma." Reviews were glowing, and "Anselma" won a Grammy for best Mexican American performance. This set contains four tracks from that album.

". . . And a Time to Dance" was produced by T Bone Burnett and Steve Berlin. The latter, a popular saxophonist on the local scene and onetime member of the Blasters, was so enthusiastic about Los Lobos that he eventually joined the group.

In its next album, 1984's "How Will the Wolf Survive?," Los Lobos continued to search for direction. The influences this time ranged from the harder, swamp-rock tones of "Don't Worry Baby" to the more mainstream R&B punch of "I Got Loaded." But the real breakthrough was the growth of Perez and Hidalgo as a songwriting team.

Their songs combined a sense of social consciousness with the timeless and graceful roots authenticity of groups such as the Band. "A Matter of Time," was a marvelously designed story of an immigrant crossing the U.S. border in search of work, and "Will the Wolf Survive?" was an anthem saluting anyone with a dream and the courage to follow it.

That songwriting partnership matured in "By the Light of the Moon," a 1987 album filled with dark, moving tales about the troubled pursuit of the American Dream, seen chiefly through a barrio perspective. It was one of the most culturally arresting and musically satisfying works by a Los Angeles-based band ever. "Cancionero" includes seven songs each from those two albums.

"Moon" was overshadowed a few months after its release by the blockbuster success of Los Lobos' contributions to the soundtrack for "La Bamba," the film biography of '50s rock star Ritchie Valens. Los Lobos' version of the title song spent three weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts.

The success posed a challenge for the band. Should the group continue to serve up more good-time '50s tunes in hopes of holding on to its vast new audience? Or should it return to its original, more personal musical path?

In the booklet included in the beautifully designed boxed set, Perez acknowledges the uneasiness the band felt at the time.

"We were the guys that played 'La Bamba,' and nothing more, and it concerned us," he says. "And we didn't really know what to do at that point, so we ran home. We ran back to who we were and asked ourselves, 'OK, now. Who are we?' "

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