ASPEN - David Hidalgo recently finished recording sessions for a new Bob Dylan album, at Jackson Browne's Los Angeles studio. Hidalgo, who has played on two previous Dylan albums, wasn't expecting to add his Mexican instruments to the new project. But there were Mexican instruments around the studio, and Hidalgo, who grew up in a Mexican-American environment in East L.A., was as attracted to the accordion, and the tres - a guitar-like instrument whose six strings are separated into three groups of two - as he was to the electric guitar when he was a kid. Dylan heard those sounds, and welcomed them into his music.
"He'd say, 'Wow, what's that?'" Hidalgo said from a tour stop in Fort Collins. "He liked the sound. So we'd get it in there."
Hidalgo appreciated Dylan's embrace of the Mexican sounds. But he has an even bigger appreciation of Dylan's outlook on music generally. The recording session, he said, was nothing like the earlier ones he had done with Dylan.
"It was a great experience. And different. Each one has been different, all completely different approaches. It's an amazing thing, how he keeps creativity. I don't see how he does it."
Hidalgo may not understand it exactly. But that hasn't stopped him from embodying that same sort of constant reinvention. In the main gig he has had for nearly 50 years, as a member of Los Lobos, Hidalgo and his mates - Louis Perez, Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano, all founding members of the band, and Steve Berlin, a Jewish Philadelphian who joined the group in the mid-'80s - have remained creatively restless and ambitious, refusing to fall into well-worn grooves.
"That's always been the philosophy of this band - it's still alive, I guess, the band, the attitude," the 57-year-old Hidalgo said. "We don't move as fast as we used to, but trying to do something that we haven't done before - that's something we pay attention to. That's important to us."
When Los Lobos play the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday, March 10 at 8 p.m., they will, indeed, be doing something new. Their current tour is an all acoustic show - unlike their last Aspen appearance, in 2009 at Belly Up, which was billed as acoustic, but found the band switching to full electric mode before the halfway point. And while Los Lobos has done acoustic tours before, this one has a twist. In the past, going acoustic meant that the setlist would be devoted to old Mexican songs. But beginning with some shows in the Midwest last week, Los Lobos have tried playing their English-language rock 'n' roll on acoustic guitars, stand-up bass and a smattering of Mexican folk instruments.
This doesn't quite compare in magnitude to some of the moves Los Lobos tried early on in their careers. The band members started out like any American kids who grew up in the '60s - anxious to separate themselves from the music of their parents, dying to plug in electric guitars and get loud. Hidalgo worshipped Hendrix and Cream; he and his friends had little interest in the Spanish-language norteno and cumbias their parents played on the radio.
But at a certain point something snapped, and Los Lobos found themselves challenged by the Mexican styles. They traded in their Fender six-strings for bajo sextos and requintos, and for nine years did their best impersonation of a Mexican folk band. When they released the 1978 album "Just Another Band From East L.A.," under the name Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, the songs were "El Pescador Nadador" and "La Iguana."
Then came another monumental change: for the 1983 album "... and a Time to Dance," they emerged as a plugged-in band, singing American-style rock.
Since then, Los Lobos - with the same lineup of musicians - have settled more or less into a certain style that mixes English and Spanish lyrics, American rock with South of the Border rhythms and themes. But they haven't stopped experimenting. The 1988 album "La Pistola y El Corazon" was devoted to tejano and mariachi styles. The highly praised 1992 album "Kiko" found them discovering the wonders of the recording studio; "Colossal Head," from 1996, moved closer toward the avant-garde. "The Ride," from 2004, was heavy with guest singers: Elvis Costello, Mavis Staples, Tom Waits, the Mexican band Cafe Tacuba; "Los Lobos Goes Disney," from 2009, was a set of recordings of songs from classic Disney movies. (That one can be explained by the fact that Los Lobos were signed to the Disney-owned Hollywood Records.)
The most recent album, 2010's "Tin Can Trust," was, at last, a throwback.
"We played straightforward, like we used to - just capture the performance. Like we did before we learned how to use the studio. It's like 'How Will the Wolf Survive' [their 1984 breakthrough album] - really pure, simple," Hidalgo said. "I guess we're recycling our old stuff, in a way."
How have Los Lobos avoided making a habit of falling into old patterns? Hidalgo isn't sure. Answering that is as difficult as saying how Bob Dylan has reinvented himself as a country singer, as a fire-and-brimstone gospel singer, as an old-style folkie, as a crooner.
"It's a mystery sometimes," Hidalgo said of Los Lobos. "Bottom line is, we still believe in what this band means to us. So we're still here to keep it alive."