I didn’t think I would make this show, until it was time to leave the house. Still recovering from minor surgery that I underwent less than a week ago, the odds were always iffy at best, but I ventured out into the sticky late afternoon and made my way to Lucille’s Tavern at 2470 North Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. There I was meeting my friend Gene Hamilton and proprietor of Lucille’s. Where a bus waited, and for the cost of $20.00; one gets a hassle-free ride to and from Ravinia, the beautiful outdoor venue up on the north shore in Highland Park IL. One also receives, all the beverages one can consume, a pot luck avalanche of snacks, and a lawn ticket to the concert. This is a great deal, considering that most concerts are way more expensive than this bargain package deal, which included beverages, food, and the intangibles like dealing with traffic stress, gas, parking, and if one likes to imbibe, the potential DUI disaster on the ride home. And I haven’t even mentioned the best part of the deal, which of course, is the fact, that the inimitable Los Lobos was slated to headline the evening’s playbill.
For a little more than two decades Los Lobos has been playing and writing consistently rewarding music, growing from their early raucous good-time bar band beginnings into one of the tightest, yet most experimental groups in rock-n-roll today. Los Lobos’ rootsy songs define their integrity and underdog stance incorporating such kaleidoscopic eclectic elements, as Latin, blues, psychedelic, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, jazz, traditional, and soul. I just recently read that Los Lobos spent some time during June in the studio working on the band’s eleventh studio effort, which is good news for Lobos fans everywhere. Los Lobos, still composed of all original members includes; David Hidalgo on guitars, accordion, drums, percussion, and vocals, Cesar Rosas on guitars and vocals, Conrad Lozano on bass guitar, Steve Berlin on keyboards, percussion, saxophone, and flute, and Louie Perez on drums, vocals, guitars, and percussion. When Los Lobos is out on the road the are usually accompanied by drummer Victor Bisetti and sometimes, as on this night, Andy Ireland sits in on guitar and accordion too. This allows the band members the freedom to switch instruments, therefore diversifying and expanding the range of their sound. They are truly a remarkable band whose strength is in live performance.
The first song was the jaunty up-tempo slice of Americana “One Time, One Night,” in which it is revealed that even in the land of the free and the home of the brave tragedy and death sometimes stand on the doorstep. It turned out to be a great choice for an opener, as it was lively, familiar, and had the audience up and dancing with it’s first notes. After a momentary band conference and much smiling, Los Lobos trotted out a nice concise version of the Robert Johnson classic “Sweet Home Chicago.” This got quite a rise out of the local crowd, even though Los Lobos has played this tune on the bands prior two trips to the Chicago area. Cesar Rosas on vocal duties played some nice tasty blues leads as well. This melded right into a rockin’ “Don’t Worry Baby” without the band ever breaking stride as it tore into this tune from their 1984 Will the Wolf Survive? album with vigor. By this time it was getting dark and many of the audience members on the lawn had fired up candles or lanterns, which gave the lawn area the aura of a relaxed backyard barbecue. Folks were partying, milling around, meeting old acquaintances and making new ones. From where I stood, I could see people of all ages smiling, enjoying themselves, and getting ready to dance anticipating the next song. But Los Lobos, always one to play on their own terms, changed gears and played the slow cautionary “Peace” with it’s lyrics of hope sung with a cynics heart. This set up the mood for the whimsical funky spook-house vibe of “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” which is really one of those description defying quirky songs that is Lobos is so adept at writing. The whip crack snare and locomotive bounce of “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes” had everyone grinding hips and dancing like there was no tomorrow. Again though, they reigned things in as the moody evocative “Angels with Dirty Faces” slowly came to life in all its haunting ethereal brilliance. This flowed directly into a soulful rendition of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy,” which they stretched out, teasing the crowd with a hint of the “Hey Jude Coda” like the Grateful Dead used to perform, but then not playing it and winding the song up in a prolonged sustain of luminous guitars. A crunchy blistering “Cumbia Raza” squawked and snorted like a mad dervish, it’s burning guitars and feverish drum beats churning the audience members on to new heights, and Steve Berlin’s saxophone solo was fantastic on this song.
Here Los Lobos took the opportunity to play some of the traditional numbers that the fans love. This is like a mini-set within a set that was semi-acoustic and a usual feature in every Los Lobos concert. David Hidalgo strapped on the accordion, which usually propels this part of the show, and they played the rollicking up- tempo polka like “Let’s Say Goodnight” followed by “Soy Mexico Americano,” a crowd favorite. Then Los Lobos performed the old traditional “Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio” by Santiago Jimenez, which featured Andy Ireland on accordion. “I Got to Let You Know,” which this time featured Ireland on guitar came next and percolated right along and kept the audience on their toes. They ended this part of the show with “Volver, Volver” another traditional that over the years Los Lobos has made their own and David Hidalgo’s vocals were in fine form.
The Doug Sahm penned “She’s About a Mover” Kicked things up a notch. Then the metallic drum slap, guttural guitar, and bubbling bass line of “This Time” eased into a slow solid groove, the saxophone and vocals drifting lazily across the verses conveying its ‘slow down and smell the roses’ message, as naturally as, one says manana. This segued seamlessly into a beautiful version of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain,” another showcase for the vocal abilities of David Hidalgo, his voice bittersweet and soulful. The band kept playing and “Sitting in the Park” followed. The set ended with Berlin’s keyboards and Hidalgo on congas and timbales beginning the immediately recognizable intro of Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va,” Rosas and Perez playing the incendiary guitar parts in a fiery duel that peaked and peaked again before ending. The audience enjoyed every minute of this classic made famous by Santana. They left the stage with a hail of “Thanks you’s” and a “Peace Chicago” tossed out to the crowd.
They were already at the time limit curfew of 10:30 PM and I was worried that that might be it, but thanks go to Ravinia Management, the band was allowed to return for a ten-minute encore. And Los Lobos held no punches, in the no-holds barred frenetic triple guitar lead monster that is “Mas y Mas.” This song has always been one of my favorites and turned out to be the only song played from the much underrated Colossal Head album. This song simply screams and roars along dizzyingly all the way through and turned out to be the ideal ending, as at last it disappeared, fading into the night sky. One had to wonder if, “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” by Dylan Thomas was on their minds. All in all it was a great concert, evenly balanced with old and new songs, familiar and obscure, as well as, originals, traditionals, and covers. The concert displayed Los Lobos’ strengths as a band and each individual member’s unique contribution to the overall sound as well. For Los Lobos, the stage is still a proving ground and a platform for a group that is constantly discovering new heights and depths in it’s ongoing musical journey. Let us just hope that a Chicago stop is on their upcoming autumn itinerary.
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