By: Dennis Cook
Los Lobos/David Lindley :: 12.06.08 :: Fillmore Auditorium :: San Francisco, CA
The great treat of being absent from superb musicians for a spell is how wonderful it is to be dazzled anew by their magic. Such was the case for myself - and not a few others - at The Fillmore during the second night of Los Lobos' December run. Kicking around in some form since 1973, "The Wolves" might sport more gray at the temples, fitting for the heavily salt & pepper crowd, but nothing about their playing or their tenacity at working their music like a beloved chew toy has diminished with the years. In fact, while a predominantly motionless bunch onstage, there was so much vitality and crafty ingenuity to their performance that one might guess they were new to this game instead of moving into their fourth decade.
What shone forth from the first notes of their lengthy set, kicked off by the buoyant "One Time One Night," was the profound enthusiasm they possess for their music. There was never a moment's question about their enjoyment in engaging with their catalog in front of a live audience. Los Lobos funnels '50s rugcutters, Tejano bounce, acid dipped psychedelia, Dead style jamming, pungent funk and way more through their well-tooled sieve. What remains is juicy with enough pulp to remind you of the fruit and the hands that crushed it for your enjoyment. With massive confidence and focused determination, David Hidalgo (vocals, guitars), Louie Pérez (vocals, guitars), Conrad Lozano (bass, vocals), Cesar Rosas (guitars, vocals), Steve Berlin (keys, horns) and longtime tour percussionist Cougar Estrada rattled like full grown men with music in their bones, a quiet giant happily plying their craft, right there for anyone to see and enjoy. But even at their own concert, they never went out of their way to draw undo attention to anything, the songs arriving with humility, professionalism and party sparking excitement. It didn't take long before I tried to kick myself in the ass for having last seen them in concert almost 10 years ago.
Another master musician, David Lindley kicked off the evening with a marvelous solo set that offered myriad lessons in storytelling and the value of tradition tending – if you were one of the few people who shut up long enough to take in Lindley's no frills roots seminar. Most of the room was probably unaware that the 75th anniversary of the repeal of prohibition had occurred the night before, but that didn't stop the alcohol loosened chatter from drowning out much of the many subtleties in Lindley's gorgeously picked, globe trotting tales of drifters, meth makers and broken hearts. Looking like a cross between Rasputin and a lawn gnome is his "traditional" Hawaii Five-O meets hippie chic look, Lindley made the big ol' Fillmore stage seem like his living room, all comfortable and intimate, but again, only if you actively leaned in a bit. Your reward for meeting him halfway was slide work that'd make Duane Allman do a jig, Appalachian hollers torn out over fiery string bouzouki playing, mandocello instrumentals reminiscent of Michael Hedges and John Renbourn, great road stories and more than a few gallows style yucks, all delivered with a curious mixture of super serious musicianship and carney showmanship.
Watching Lindley move is like observing some mighty body of water from above, where many tributaries feed into it and the landscape moves easily from rolling hills to flatlands, to splashing creek banks to snowy desolation. Senses sharpened by his Fillmore set, one felt witness to geography manifest in music, the broad reach of things taken down to two hands, a shaggy, bobbing head and whatever piece of wood & wires he presently found himself working over. Lindley is a conveyer of tradition and an innovator, as witnessed by his transposition of Blind Willie Johnson's "The Soul of a Man" to bouzouki. "Every slide player, every bottleneck player, when they hear Blind Willie for the first time it scares the shit out of them. 'How does he do that?'" he observed in the introduction. "I dare not play it on the slide." This tune and many others in his slightly over an hour set found lines of connection between instruments, styles and musicians, worlds and often lifetimes apart. Maybe it is history and not geography that resounds most clearly in Lindley, but whatever metaphor works best for ya, trust me, he's a hell of a show all by his lonesome.
By the time Los Lobos ambled out, the hall was pretty well lit up, wine and cocktails getting more precarious as people stumbled around in search of their pals under the pale purple light of The Fillmore chandeliers, which gave the space the feel of a high school dance or some yesteryear boy-girl mixer when Cesar Rosas fired up one of his Chuck Berry worthy nuggets like the sax blurt and rapid fire note storm of "Evangeline." There's perhaps nothing better than a band that makes fully grown, 401K watchin' adults loosen the hell up. Los Lobos accomplishes this by their welcoming presence and songs that manage to be both radio-friendly welcoming (in many cases) and lightly experimental.
There's a nifty push-n-pull to their music, where their wilder hairs are rooted in something more forthrightly engaging. They are such swell musicians that they can marble in their digressions and bugged out flirtations in such a way that one could easily miss them if they weren't following along closely. For a bonafide music dork like myself, I rode every nuance, every curve for all it was worth and found myself rewarded with the ass shakin' early Johnny Winter intensity of "High Places," the honest pathos of "Just A Man," a tough, slinky reading of the Grateful Dead's "West L.A. Fadeaway" and a heartbreaking run through their own bittersweet masterpiece "When The Circus Comes." The setlist drew heavily from Kiko, which is just fine if one digs the meatier parts of this band (see JamBase's recent salute to this album over here). During the Rosas instigated "That Train Don't Stop Here," Hidalgo kept finding new spots to dig his guitar around in, and together with Rosas, mutated a fairly straight blues lament into jazz territory, where one picked up on the shades of Wes Montgomery and Grant Green in their work.
|David Hidalgo by Tim Owen|
Such is the full bloomin' sweep of a great American band, and Los Lobos joins Railroad Earth in being one of the few true standard bearers for what Garcia and his brothers started in S.F. in the '60s. What Los Lobos brings in, just as Railroad and the Dead do, is their own local echoes, the peculiarities that form the tendrils they reach out into the soundscape with. They are very much creatures of East L.A. and one hears the Fania singles and Tex-Mex oom-pah-pah of their childhoods. But they also manhandle forces as diverse as Brian Eno and The Who (this night touched on with a delightfully brutal cover of "My Generation"). At the stage where most bands with their tenure are settled into comfortable, lucrative pockets there remains a strong artistic itch to Los Lobos. The kernel of inspiration that brought them into a band in the first place flourishes inside the mighty organism they've grown into.
Los Lobos will celebrate New Year's Eve in Tucson, AZ; complete tour dates available here.
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