Wolves in sheep's clothing

On "This Time," the members of Los Lobos traded their berets and goatees for guitar wail and pop hooks.

Published August 3, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sometime toward the end of their set last May at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Los Lobos traded the experimental, trippy touches of "Kiko" and "Colossal Head" for a small guitar army and the sonic assault of pure rawk. Up under the lights, Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo swapped six-string leads on "That Train Don't Stop Here," taking the song into a raucous full-on jam, then, on the next tune, moved from scorched-earth crunch to buzzing distortion and white noise. The sun-baked Jazz Fest revelers -- who were passing joints and inhaling gator pie -- screamed in approval.

The experience was a lot like listening to "This Time," Los Lobos' 10th record, a return to the rockier roots of a band born 26 years ago on the Chicano party circuit in East Los Angeles. Unlike several recent side projects, including albums by Hidalgo's experimental Latin Playboys, "This Time" represents a thrilling return to feel-good bar-band glory

"'This Time' reminds me more of the records pre-'Kiko,' more like 'How Will the Wolf Survive?'" says saxophonist-keyboardist Steve Berlin, talking over the phone from a studio in Austin, Texas. "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."

Like the rest of the band, Berlin took his own side-project detour, winning a Grammy for producing the debut by Los Super Seven, a Tejano/Texas-country project featuring a cast of music veterans including Rosas, Hidalgo, Doug Sahm, Freddy Fender, Joe Ely, Rick Trevino, Flaco Jimenez and Ruben Ramos. Berlin believes that it's that side-project experience that allowed Los Lobos to put down some more outri work and return to their roots. "It didn't have to be quite so experimental for it to work," he says. "It doesn't sound like 'N Sync or anything. It's not like we took a giant leap. It's just really straightforward in a way that we haven't necessarily been recently. It's just there."

The title cut, one of eight songs co-written by Hidalgo and drummer Louie Perez, teases with background growls and scratches, a distant backbeat and a melodic bass line. It evolves into a snaking R&B groove with Hidalgo singing words of regret over the top of the mix: "Why do the days go by so fast/If only time was built to last/If it could learn to take it slow/Then maybe time at last would know." "Viking" is all heavy guitars, with wordless chain-gang vocals contrasting against the hard, grinding metal. And "High Places" thrives on a ripping blues-rock riff and self-mocking lyrics about stardom.

That stardom has been fleeting for Los Lobos. The band is adored by critics and followed tenaciously by fans, but they don't receive a lot of airplay these days. They were, however, a hot commercial commodity for a season. A dozen years ago, the quintet contributed a version of "La Bamba" to the soundtrack of the Ritchie Valens biopic of the same name. The single and the album rocketed to the top of the charts in 25 or so countries. The band became a household name and, predictably, longtime fans accused the group of selling out.

To some extent, the overnight success was more than a decade in the making. At the very beginning, Los Lobos was a group of Mexican-Americans mixing folk tunes, Chicano R&B and blistering rock 'n' roll into one savory tamale. Not everyone understood the musical miscegenation: The restaurant owners and music promoters who were willing to have them play never really knew what to make of the band. To lay it all out, Rosas titled the group's 1978 debut "Los Lobos Del Este Los Angeles (Just Another Band From East L.A.)."

The title of that EP, all these years later, remains a lie spiked with the truth. Los Lobos are really not just another band. They're something more: dedicated lifers, chronic experimenters, beatified live players. They've gloriously survived changing tastes and musical fads with their lineup intact (Berlin joined in 1984), and their fan base keeps expanding while other L.A. outfits of the period have disintegrated or morphed beyond recognition.

The group, to its credit, has continued to synthesize the multicultural sounds of the old neighborhood into a potent antidote to generic pop. "This Time," for instance, features traditional rhythms played by guest percussionist Alex Acuna on songs like "Corazon" and "Cumbia Raza." And the band infuses the swampy "Some Say Some Do" with a social conscience. Prefab bubble gum and anglicized Latin pop may come and go, but Los Lobos keep howling.

"It just happened that way," Berlin says of the band's durability. "To a certain extent, it has to do with the fact that we've tried not to stand in one place very long. We've tried to change and grow and make interesting records all down the line. We've been extremely lucky that we've had an audience that's followed us down all these weird little paths we've taken.

"I always said that we're easily bored. Like a bunch of third-graders, basically, our attention wanders. It's hopeless. More than anything, to keep ourselves from drifting off we have to constantly search for new stuff or wacky stuff. I think it's served us well."

By Philip Booth

Philip Booth is a freelance writer in Tampa, Fla.

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