THE WOLVES AT WORK: Band members Louie Perez, left, David Hidalgo, Cesar… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)
David Hidalgo stood on a concrete loading dock outside the tiny recording studio where he and the other members of Los Lobos were working feverishly on the final track for their new album, "Tin Can Trust."
On this lovely spring afternoon, the band's beefy singer, guitarist, accordionist and composer soaked up the sights and sounds surrounding him in the East L.A. neighborhood where the roots-rock group had settled in to make its latest record. As the sun set, cars whizzed past, an ice cream truck trundled down the road playing a jingling version of Brahms' Lullaby and construction workers wrapped up their day at the demolition yard across the street.
Hidalgo smiled as he mentioned how comforting it was to see a street vendor periodically strolling the sidewalk with his pushcart stocked with fresh corn on the cob.
"The old neighborhood — it's good," Hidalgo, 55, said during a break in recording "The Lady and the Rose," the song that would complete their forthcoming album..
Three dozen years and more than a dozen albums into its career, a band could be forgiven for pursuing the most relaxed, most comfortable way to make a new record. But from the early exuberance of its 1983 EP, "… and a time to dance" to the musical and sonic sophistication of 2006's "The Town and the City," Los Lobos has long strived to push itself, and its music, to new places, and that's no exception for "Tin Can Trust," which will be released Aug. 3.
As part of a summer tour that's already underway, the group plays a hometown show Sunday at the Greek Theatre, opening for the Steve Miller Band.
By returning to the part of town that gave birth to the group in 1973 to make the new album, the members have reconnected with some of the qualities that first brought them together. At the top of the list: the sheer joy of playing together, and the challenge of bringing the values they cherish into songs that help illuminate their experiences, good and bad, as they move through life.
"On Main Street," one of a half-dozen new songs Hidalgo wrote with bandmate Louis Perez, celebrates the community they grew up in:
Nothing better than running down the boulevard
Getting a little dirt on my shoes
With my brothers and sisters hanging all around
Chasing away all of my blues
The blues are never too far away, as they note in the title song, which outlines and empathizes with the struggles of those who live hand-to-mouth. He concludes the lyric with the reality that "All in all I ain't got/Ain't got much in a tin can trust."
Barely 48 hours earlier, Hidalgo had walked into the studio with just a chord progression in his head. He began strumming the haunting riff on a Gretsch 12-string electric guitar.
A new song? "I hope so," he said, acknowledging the mysteries of the creative process. Saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Steve Berlin explained that as they were putting finishing touches on the 10 tracks they'd previously recorded, the band members decided the album should have one more song.
"After we'd finished," Berlin said, "we felt we needed one more to really capture the sound of the room. We really liked the sound of it."
That would be Manny's Estudio, a scrappy, low-fi operation in Lincoln Heights. Owner Manny Nieto has been using it mostly for punk and alternative bands, and flipped when he got a call from East L.A.'s most celebrated musical conglomerate about using it.
"I grew up loving their music," he said. "To have them come in here to my studio was such an honor."
That allowed Nieto a close-up look at the ego-free process through which Los Lobos has kept its artistic batting average remarkably high through the years, something that also prompted Shout! Factory Records to sign the band to a new deal.
"Fortunately, I was in L.A. when they were first playing clubs, and I always loved seeing them live," label president Garson Foos said. "Listening to that first record and others like crazy, I became a huge fan myself."
Although the band has averaged a new album only every three or four years, Los Lobos has toured heavily and supplemented the studio albums with a series of live recordings. The various members have also kept themselves busy with various side projects, including the Latin Playboys, the Tex-Mex supergroup Los Super Seven, some duo releases by Hidalgo and Perez, a solo album from guitarist-singer-songwriter Cesar Rosas and numerous one-off contributions to other artists' works.
"I think they're such an interesting band in so many ways," he said. "They're so identified with L.A. and there's something very cool about that. They're rooted in the Latino rock and music tradition, but they branch out in so many different directions, touching on the jam band scene, the pure Latin stuff they do, and there's also a very soulful side to them that's influenced by the Chicano R&B sound of groups like Thee Midnighters and Tierra. They have such a great range."