Los Lobos named their 1978 debut, "Just Another Band From East L.A.," out of sheer frustration. They got tired, the story goes, of having to explain their music and their ethnic roots.
All these years later that title remains a lie spiked with the truth. Los Lobos has gloriously survived changing tastes with their lineup intact and fan base steadily expanding, while other Los Angeles outfits of the period have disintegrated or morphed beyond recognition. The band plays at the House of Blues on Friday, April 30, a day after their new tour opens at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
They continue to synthesize the multicultural sounds of the old neighborhood -- roots rock, Chicano R&B, psychedelia, Mexican folk -- into a potent antidote to generic pop. Percussionist Steve Berlin doesn't have an easy explanation for the group's endurance. "‘I don't know' would be the short answer," he says.
"To a certain extent, it has to do with the fact that we've tried not to stand in one place very long," Berlin adds, talking by phone from an Austin motel room. "We've been extremely lucky that we've had an audience that's followed us down all these weird little paths we've taken. Certainly we've not been easy to market and sell." Los Lobos fans indeed have witnessed a variety of unexpected detours since the release of 1996's "Colossal Head," a trippy, ambitious disc that served as a sort of sonic sequel to 1992's surrealistic "Kiko."
Last year Berlin produced the debut disc by Los Super Seven, an assemblage of talent featuring Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Joe Ely, Rick Trevino, Flaco Jimenez and Ruben Ramos. The mix of Tejano and Texas country notched a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Music Performance.
This year has seen a veritable Big Bang of recordings by Los Lobos side projects. "Soul Disguise," the solo debut from Rosas, appeared in February. It's a roots-rock delight, a spin of the border-radio dial through the soul, California pop, norteno and ballroom balladry that he heard growing up in the '50s and '60s.
Hidalgo was involved in two recordings, both released in March. "Dose," the second album from the Latin Playboys, is a freaky slab of heavy grooves, experimental noise and found sounds, created with bandmate Louie Perez and Los Lobos producers Mitchell Froom and Tchad Blake. The self-titled debut from Houndog, a collaboration between Hidalgo and former Canned Heat singer Mike Halby, is full of spooky late-night blues, with moaning vocals set against sobbing violin and wailing guitar.
Creative overflow caused the downpour of new records. On a Los Lobos record, "It's a pretty even balance between `songs by` Cesar and Dave and Louie," says Berlin, noting that everyone has songs left over. Additionally, "You have to realize that we made "Colossal Head" in '95 and '96. So it's been a good two-plus years. That's a lot of time between records for Los Lobos. There's a lot of creative steam being built up by the various songwriters."
Los Lobos was known in the late '80s as the guys who remade Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba." Their next move, the late-summer release of "This Time," may again take listeners by surprise. "'This Time' reminds me more of the records pre-'Kiko,' more like `1984's` 'How Will the Wolf Survive?'" Berlin says. "The songs are -- I won't say ‘straighter.' But we employed more pop devices. We didn't have our berets and goatees on so much. It didn't have to be quite so experimental for it to work. It doesn't sound like 'N Sync or anything. ... It's just really straightforward in a way that we haven't necessarily been recently. It's just there."