Words by Scott Caffrey
Los Lobos is easy to take for granted. As certified musical trailblazers, their path has always been a more difficult one. Trailblazing involves struggle and strife, misguided criticism, and can take eons for anyone to recognize it as a worthy pursuit. But as their latest album The Town and the City attests, it's clearly the only thing this 32-year-old quintet knows.
Being a maverick in the '80s music business was tricky, to say the least. A band making its own decisions was either a big gun or had some credibility in the hit parade. But even then, those breaking artistically free were often castigated to the "eclectic" bin. If they were ever heard from again, it was in the underground scene. A select few of these bands, however, made it out with their careers intact, and have become the New Legends.
Los Lobos is one of these legendary bands. They made their name by consciously, constantly, and creatively moving in the opposite direction of their last recorded step. And it worked because they're damn good. It's one of the ballsiest moves in rock 'n' roll, and they don't get enough credit for doing it. Because no matter how beloved any band is, making the anti-album is always a risk. But for The Wolves, these moves are normal, and they have come to define Los Lobos's career.
As history has vindicated, "eclectic" is now a badge of cool. And the guys in Los Lobos wear it well. While most people know them for their hit Ritchie Valens covers on the La Bamba soundtrack, not enough know them for the brilliant musical grandeur that comprises Kiko. So today, they command something of a comfortable middle ground – they had a whiff of big time stardom and have earned their stripes underground.
The group's continued success and rabid fan-base speak directly to the accessibility of their diverse music. On stage, their schizophrenic setlists foster a self-professed mission of intercultural and intergenerational harmony. Their shows have become something akin to a hip family reunion. It's such a loose and friendly atmosphere that you can walk up, meet each one, and even request "La Bamba" if you absolutely have to hear it. The thin line between success and failure has been kicked out of whack, bent out of shape, and moved clear to the other side by a quartet of Chicano friends from East LA – David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Cesar Rosas, and Conrad Lozano – and their lone recruit, Steve Berlin.
Born September 14th, 1955 in Philadelphia, Steve Berlin moved to Los Angeles at the ripe age of 19 after getting a call for a can't-miss gig. He quickly became a hot commodity as a session saxophonist, and it was during his stint with The Blasters that Berlin remembers seeing Los Lobos for the first time. The year was 1980, and Los Lobos were opening for Public Image, Ltd. at the Olympic Auditorium in downtown Los Angeles. The punk audience threw everything they could – literally and figuratively – at the long-haired, fuzzy foursome as they played their way through a set of traditional, acoustic Norteño music. The gutsy display fascinated Berlin, who would later equate the impact to "finding a tribe of Indians living under a freeway underpass."
It wasn't until the second time he saw them live, as openers for his own Blasters, that Berlin was gripped into a healthy obsession. "We ended up hanging out and I remember many, many times where I would do a gig with The Blasters or somebody else and then go screaming across town to catch the Lobos encore. Anything to get to play with them, to me, was what I would do. No matter how far, or how ridiculous the commute was, I was gonna be there just because I enjoyed it so much."
With fascination eventually turning into full-time work, no decision was ever really made for Berlin to join as honorary Chicano. "I played with them long enough, and worked with them long enough. It wasn't like they came to me and said, 'Would you?' I was sort of like, 'Hey could I?' So it all kinda melded into one big thing, I guess." Berlin would go on to co-produce their Grammy-winning EP ...And a Time to Dance with T-Bone Burnett in 1983 and more-or-less officially join Los Lobos sometime in 1984.
With his position in the band now firmly in place, Berlin continued playing countless sessions all over Southern California with a diverse array of bands, including the Beat Farmers, Translator, and Flesh Eaters. But as you'll soon read, it was a "record label family" assignment on Paul Simon's landmark Graceland that would shake Berlin to his core. And though Graceland amounted to a painful learning experience that none of the members have forgotten, one year later Los Lobos finally enjoyed their first taste of commercial success with La Bamba.
From there, Berlin's reputation as a producer continued to grow. He helmed sessions for acts as diverse as Faith No More, The Tail Gators, and his former Blaster-mate Dave Alvin. He remained a stalwart on the alternative rock scene and worked with the likes of The Replacements, John Lee Hooker, Leo Kottke, Sheryl Crow, and The String Cheese Incident.
Armed with obvious studio acumen, Berlin works hard to make the recorded Lobos sound meet the band's vision. And because of this prowess and thirst for record making, he spent every necessary minute poring over everything that was needed to create the wonderfully complicated The Town and the City. "Let's put it this way – I was the only guy there every single day. A lot of guys got to take some days off, but I didn't."
The Town and the City falls perfectly in the Los Lobos canon. It has an undeniable patience and tranquility, even when the guitars are jacked up. It also focuses on one big theme close to the band's heart: immigration. This is an album about people feeling out of place. It's about the hardships that come with being, and feeling, different.
The intricacies of sound presented on the album sway from the heart-wrenching laborer's lament "Hold On" (I'm killing myself to survive)" to the anthemic guitar power of "The Road to Gila Bend." Along with the unique sensibilities of producers Tchad Blake and Robert Carrazza, the band is still able to emit those subtle, strange, and weird noises – like the effulgent feedback guiding the listener through "The Valley." The Town and the City demands attention and repeat-listening. It's far too heady to get it all in one sitting. This album is the culmination of a musical family, living life together. Once again, Los Lobos has opened the doors to its collective heart and spoken for the world at large.