`Perfect union’ at Wheeler tonight | AspenTimes.com

`Perfect union’ at Wheeler tonight

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Staff Writer

In one of their early hits, Los Lobos – whose name is Spanish for “the Wolves” – asked the question, “Will the Wolf Survive?”

The simple answer to that question is yes.

When Los Lobos perform at the Wheeler Opera House tonight at 7:30 the lineup will feature the same five musicians – guitarists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, bassist Conrad Lozano, drummer Louie Perez and saxophonist Steve Berlin – who came together in 1983.

In rock ‘n’ roll, 20 years with a stable lineup certainly counts as survival.

More significant than Los Lobos’ survival is that they have thrived artistically over the last two decades. Since forming in the Latino neighborhood of East Los Angeles in 1973 – as a quartet, before the addition of Berlin – the band has developed from an outfit updating traditional Mexican tunes to a group consistently pushing rock’s cutting edge. Albums from the 1992 masterpiece “Kiko” to last year’s “Good Morning Aztlan” have combined Los Lobos’ Latino roots with experimentation in songwriting and production.

The development comes as no surprise to Berlin. The Philadelphia-area native was initially impressed by Los Lobos’ bravery. Berlin, who moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, was in the audience one night in 1978, when Los Lobos, opening for Johnny Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd., had to duck the debris thrown by the punk crowd. Not long after, Berlin became even more impressed with the band’s music. When Los Lobos opened for the Blasters, which at the time included Berlin, the saxophonist jumped at the chance to jam with the barrio rockers.

“They blew everybody away that night,” said Berlin. “They asked me if I wanted to jam some. At that point, I didn’t know anything about Hispanic music.”

Berlin, the offspring of Russian Jews, might not have had any familiarity with the Mexican-inspired songs Los Lobos were playing at the time. But Berlin knew music, and what he heard in Los Lobos’ approach was the sound of unlimited potential.

“They were moving toward being a rock ‘n’ roll band, and that’s what interested me,” he said. “It fascinated me that they had all these different things going on at the same time. It seemed like there were endless possibilities. Turned out I was right.”

Underlying Los Lobos’ ability to make consistently fresh music is a natural itch to cover new ground. The band has introduced new instruments into their sound, and worked with a rotating cast of producers to keep their edge.

“It’s just the collective consciousness of the band,” said Berlin, who played on, and co-produced with T Bone Burnett, Los Lobos’ “… And a Time to Dance,” and found himself a full member of the band by the time the album was released in 1983. “We’re sort of restless. We don’t like to stay in one place too long. It leads us interesting places. That’s the sound we like – to be able to turn on a dime, from relative coherence to a chaotic race riot. It’s just in the way these five personalities interact.”

Berlin said those personalities have formed a perfect union. Everyone in Los Lobos has a substantial voice: Hidalgo and Perez form one songwriting team, usually contributing the more innovative songs. Rosas writes the rest of the material, which generally leans toward the traditional. Lozano sings, and Berlin, who plays a variety of instruments, takes the lead in the arrangements and production.

Still Berlin acknowledged that, in a band of equals, it is Hidalgo’s voice that is heard above the others. While all the members of Los Lobos pursue other musical projects, Hidalgo has been the most ambitious outside the band’s confines. He is a member, with Perez, of both the avant-garde rock group the Latin Playboys and the all Mexican-American group Los Super Seven. Hidalgo has also recorded the edgy 1999 blues album “Houndog” with former Canned Heat singer Mike Halby.

“David is the most equal among us,” he said. “He’s one of the most talented musicians in the world. It’s a democracy, but I can’t remember him ever being overruled. More often than not, he’s got the most intriguing ideas in the room.”

Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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