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ECLECTIC AND SPONTANEOUS

Los Lobos/City Winery, New York/Dec. 2, 2013

Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano_City Winery_Dec. 2, 2013_by Chris M. Junior.jpg   Los Lobos wrapped up a three-night New York celebration of their 40th anniversary in fitting fashion, with a show that in many ways mirrored the band's career: It saw the group veer from one musical genre to the next, was unpredictable and somewhat unconventional, basically devoid of hit songs and did not lend itself to an easy description.

The East Los Angeles stalwarts, known for incorporating rockabilly, Tex-Mex, folk, blues and traditional Latin rhythms into a varied sound all their own, did not disappoint in that regard before a jammed crowd in an intimate, supper-club setting. From the opener “How Much Can I Do?”, driven by David Hidalgo‘s accordion and Steve Berlin’s booming sax in lockstep harmony, through a smattering of Spanish-language offerings to more straight-ahead blues-rock — such as “My Baby’s Gone,” on which Cesar Rosas delivered a gruff, Eric Clapton-esque vocal — Los Lobos showed why they’ve been so acclaimed for decades (their range) and also why they’ve usually been off the mainstream radar: their willingness to seemingly try anything, for better or worse.
Steve Berlin_City Winery_Dec. 2, 2013_by Chris M. Junior.jpg
That last quality nearly got them into trouble midway through the show, when the band was clearly winging the setlist and guitarist/singer Rosas, perhaps inspired by the strong response to a faithful rendering of The Allman Brothers Band-associated “One Way Out,” asked the audience whether it was a “blues crowd.” Apparently he heard enough applause that a long, slow blues burner sung in Spanish soon followed, but it went on too long and stalled the momentum. Even Rosas could sense that, as when the tune ended he jokingly asked whether the crowd had enjoyed its nap.

Thankfully Los Lobos would get back on course and score with a few crowd favorites, even while leaving out a handful of rock “hits” that would have been sure to please — “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes,” “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee),” “Will the Wolf Survive?” and/or one of the well-known Ritchie Valens covers from 1987’s La Bamba soundtrack, the band’s biggest commercial success, could have kicked things into a higher gear.

As it was, Los Lobos still finished on a pretty impressive note, showing off a handful of the band’s calling cards in a final flourish: nailing the soulful ballad “Volver, Volver,” with Rosas and bassist Conrad Lozano’s voices melding warmly on the chorus, then closing the main set with the rollicking rumble of “Don’t Worry Baby” before encoring with the swinging Latin groove of “Maricela” (propelled by excellent drum and percussion work from Cougar Estrada, who alternates behind the kit with original drummer and sometimes guitarist Louie Perez), followed by a bluesy jam that saw guitarist Marc Ribot join them and tear off some jagged riffs while a guest clarinet player traded solos with Berlin.

The 95-minute show straddled the line between being purposefully eclectic yet also spontaneous, and perhaps that has been a key to the band’s survival for 40 years. For all of their celebrated musical blends, Los Lobos’ enduring formula seems to be not really having one at all.

— By George Henn
Louie Perez and David Hidalgo_City Winery_Dec. 2, 2013_by Chris M. Junior.jpg
Top: Cesar Rosas (left) and Conrad Lozano
Middle: Steve Berlin
Above: Louie Perez (left) and David Hidalgo
Photos by Chris M. Junior