LOS LOBOS have quietly become one of the most noteworthy stories in the history of American rock ‘n’ roll.
It’s incredible enough that the band is now marking their 50th year. What’s even more amazing is that the band still comprises the same core group of founders – David Hidalgo, Louie Perez, Cesar Rosas, and Conrad Lozano – who formed the group back when they were in high school in East L.A. in the early ‘70s.
It’s a remarkable, and perhaps unmatched, record of longevity which was reflected in the anticipation of the nearly sold-out crowd at their Savannah Music Festival performance this past Saturday night at the Lucas Theatre.
Back when Hidalgo and friends, now pushing 70, formed the band as teenagers, the term “Chicano” was typically used to describe the Mexican-American diaspora from which the band emerged. While that particular verbiage is a bit dated, the band never strayed far from their Mexican roots, while simultaneously mastering a range of genres both within and outside that tradition, from polka-influenced norteña music to straight-up blues.
Saturday night’s set, while getting off to a shaky start, hit the highlights of their long and remarkable career for an appreciative crowd.
In a rarity for the usually very punctual Savannah Music Festival, the band’s set started a full 40 minutes after its stated 8 p.m. start time, with soundcheck still going on around the 8:30 mark. Perhaps the threat of regional thunderstorms put the travel schedule behind enough to affect the show.
In something of a role reversal, the audience – which was late-arriving, chatty, and distracted in typical Savannah fashion – became vocally impatient for the show to start.
Rosas, who does the vast bulk of the band's stage banter, joked early on that the band was “going acoustic” because they didn’t want to play too loud. The first few songs indeed featured no electric guitars, and seemed to be mildly beset with some kind of issue which may or may not have been related to the late start.
The mix was unsteady for the first segment of the set. Anyone familiar with Los Lobos knows the band members trade off lead vocal duties, but whoever was running the board was caught by surprise more than once, having to pot up that song’s lead vocal mic after the singer had already begun singing.
That said, by the time Hidalgo and Rosas plugged in and switched to their Telecaster and lefty Stratocaster, respectively, the band had hit its stride and the mix was noticeably better.
The more nuanced tunes from the start of the set, such as the beautiful “Saint Behind The Glass,” gave way to the band’s more raucous, blues-based honky-tonk side, including a fun cover of “Love Special Delivery” by another, if lesser-known, ‘70s Chicano band, Thee Midniters.
Interestingly, Los Lobos’ first radio hit, “Will The Wolf Survive,” came early on and was almost a throwaway. We were in fact lucky to hear it, as the band doesn’t play it at every show anymore.
Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the set came from that album, How Will the Wolf Survive, as well as the band’s masterpiece, Kiko. Particular crowd-pleasing highlights included “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Kiko and the Lavender Room," the latter featuring Hidalgo on the accordion.
Of particular note is how the voices of the two main lead singers, Hidalgo and Rosas, barely betray their age at all. Rosas remains as clear and classical as ever, especially on the Spanish language tunes, while Hidalgo’s signature tenor is just as smooth and lyrical as it was decades ago.
Their encore was the typical, and very effective, one-two punch of their cover of Lil’ Bob & The Lollipops’ “I Got Loaded” from Wolf and their biggest-ever hit, a cover of Ritchie Valens' “La Bamba,” with a nice segue into the nearly identical “Good Lovin’.”
Along the way, Rosas managed to confirm my suspicion that this was possibly the first time Los Lobos has ever played Savannah. He said that if they had done so before, it must have been very early on, somewhere in the early ‘80s.
For those of us like myself who’d been waiting a very long time to see the band here in person, it was, if not the most perfectly consistent show, well worth the wait.