Los Lobos' outsider approach to American roots music infuses plenty of its own cultural perspective into the mix. It’s an approach that’s served the band well through its four-plus decades of making music.
Last year’s “Gates of Gold” — the band’s 17th studio effort and first in five years — did what virtually every Los Lobos rock-oriented album has done. It mixed hard-edged blues (“Mis-Treater Boogie Blues”), squeeze-box-kissed cumbia (“Poquito Para Aqui”) and sweet ballads (“Magdalena”) into a gumbo that reflects the band’s bluesy rock roots and Mexican-American heritage. And, like many of its superlative albums (1984’s “How Will the Wolf Survive?” the innovative 1992 “Kiko” and 2004’s “The Ride”) released by this East Los Angeles group, “Gates of Gold” garnered plenty of positive acclaim.
For sax and keyboard player Steve Berlin, the band is at a great point in its history after 40-plus years of playing live and recording.
“When you do it as long as we’ve been doing it, it’s not like we’re on some dramatic growth pattern. We have our friends and our fans. We’re in a happy spot, right in the middle,” Berlin says. “We can tour as much as we want to. If someone had told me in the beginning that this is where we’d be in 40 years, I don’t think anyone would have said, ‘No thanks, this is not a good deal.’ Believe me, we know how lucky we are to be able to make a living doing this.”
Los Lobos will perform at 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 12, at Rogue Theatre, 143 S.E. H St., Grants Pass. The Frankie Hernandez Band will open the show. Tickets are $35, $45 and $55 and can be purchased online at roguetheatre.com or by calling 541-471-1316.
This Southern California outfit’s prolific recording and touring finally landed its members a deserved nomination to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were passed over, but the band’s embrace of Mexican folk music dates back to when guitarists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, guitarist and drummer Louie Perez and bassist Conrad Lozano were classmates at Los Angeles’ Garfield High School in the early '70s. Berlin joined in the early '80s after a stint in roots-rock band the Blasters.
Knowledge of Mexican music came in handy following the band’s breakout success at the top of the charts with the soundtrack to the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic “La Bamba.” Short-sighted people were happy to pigeonhole Los Lobos with that hit song, an idea that didn’t sit well with the band. Los Lobos' response was to cut “La Pistola y El Corazon,” an acoustic full-length featuring Spanish-sung Mexican folk songs.
“I remember there was a little bit of dissension among people around us at that time,” Berlin recalls. “They couldn’t understand following up a multi-million-selling record with something like “La Pistola y El Corazon,” but that’s exactly why we did it. There would never be a better time to do something like that when arguably people would be paying closer attention if we had done it 10 years later. I think it was a genius move on our part. I think it turned out great.
“What was kind of funny was that some of the idiots around us were like, ‘You need to do ‘La Bamba II.’ And it was like, ‘Do you people realize that we basically did all the songs the guy wrote,’ which was about 18?” Berlin says. “When Valens died, he was 17. Where would you like us to get “Volume II” from?”
“Gates of Gold” represents the end of a two-album contract with 429 Records, so Los Lobos faces an unknown future. It’s all part of a music industry landscape that’s shifted dramatically and seen the band record for six different labels. It’s a brand new world that Berlin admits he’s observed as someone who has worked on many outside projects, and the possibility of self-released music is an option.
"Right now, we’re without a label," he says. "We’re not sure. We’re not thinking about it, and we’re not going to put out a record anytime soon. What our next record would be or how we do it is kind of a daunting thing to think about.
“I’m looking forward to it just to see what we can pull off on our own, but I know it’s going to be a big adjustment for everybody in the band.”