Indie Rock Legends. - Celebrating Bill Graham's 89th Birthday with Los Lobos.
posted 21 Jan 2020
by Krister Axel
The world loves their music because they have been playing it for more than 40 years, and because it reflects the cultural roots of who they are, and have always been.
It began with a simple text message - this is why I love living within spitting distance of California. There was that time my friend Joel invited me to catch a Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real show in San Francisco at Slim's - you know, the one where Bob Weir sat in - that was a big 'yes.' This was a similar moment. The text:
Wanna meet Wally and I January 11th for Bill Graham's 89th bday celebration with Los Lobos at the Fillmore?
Yes. Yes I do.
And that was it - thus began my introduction to the strange world of Los Lobos, and the immense troves of talent and tradition that they hold in equal store. What made this extra fun was the interaction with old-school San Francisco - the Fillmore, the photos on the wall, the history that goes back decades upon decades to the days of 710 Ashbury, tripping on Haight street, free love, and beautiful, humanistic, progressivist hope. Some of the same characters were still there, paying homage to Bill Graham who passed away tragically in a helicopter accident almost 30 years ago now. Clearly, the flame still burns: Wavy Gravy was there, who, as far as I can tell is 84 years old now, and thousands of Los Lobos fans - along with Alice Colby, who used to go scuba diving with Jerry Garcia, and the infamous Fillmore greeter at the top of the stairs, and countless more sycophants, potheads, music lovers, and secret billionaires. As the world evolves, and transforms, and we build more condos and parking lots and coffee shops, there are parts that remain blissfully retro, and a moment like this attracts the same people that it always has: the dreamers, the believers, the not-fade-away-ers. Because hippy, because love, because long hair never goes out of style when you don't give a fuck. It's refreshing, at points a bit overwhelming, but not at all surprising: there is no replacement. If you grew up in the late 60's, or like me, in the 90's which echoed much of that same ethos, we have been sliding back, ever since Reagan. More war, more inequality, shittier schools, fewer vacations, tiger moms, guns, the exploding cost of health care - if you don't hang on to "Turn on, tune in, drop out" - what do you have?
My friend Nathan met Mando years ago, who has been part executive assistant, part sound engineer, part travel agent, and part fixer for the Los Lobos band for the last 2 decades (at least), and they became fast friends. Nathan and I know each other from when we were both working the college grind in Madison, Wisconsin, and we miraculously kept in touch over the years. He was supportive of my college band (Sunshine Allison), because he has always loved music dearly, especially live music, and when I moved to Ashland - and later started this blog - I had landed in a place that he knew well, from a mutual friend who used to run the KS Wild conservancy. It's a small world. So I took the invitation, packed my bags, and headed out.
Myles was the first crew member that I met, who is in charge of merch. He's a sharp, jovial sports-lover with a shaved head. I liked him immediately. He lives in Minneapolis, Nathan lives in Madison, and I live in Ashland - so we weren't quite ready for the herculean task of finding a place to watch the 49ers play the Vikings within walking distance of Hotel Kabuki. It wasn't meant to be. We bought beer, and bourbon, and seltzer water, and headed right back to the hotel. The rooms had big TVs. Problem solved.
I have always admired Los Lobos, as a Mexican American - my other half is Swedish - and as a lover of roots music, and having just finished reading "More Fun in the New World" - a fantastic book about the post-punk LA music scene in the 1980's with a chapter written by Louie Pérez, original member of Los Lobos (del Este) - I was ready to dig in to some roots revivalism. As the story goes, before they were a band, the friends that were to become Los Lobos wanted to play some traditional Mexican music for a birthday - someone's mother - and they quickly realized that the music of their cultural heritage was not at all easy to play. So they kept at it. Gigs started coming in; and now, in their 5th decade of live performance as a group, they aren't done. On the heels of their most recent release "Llegó Navidad," the first for Rhino Records of a 4-album deal, they are gearing up for another recording this year. It might be a bunch of cover songs. It might not be. We'll see.
The phrase I heard a few times was that Los Lobos don't give a fuck. The music is great; they certainly give a fuck about that. The meaning there is a sort of throwaway punk-vibe, which gels well with their 80's-era roots in Los Angeles. They don't sweat the small stuff. It's more of an explanation about, for example, the fact that there was a lack of agreement over playing a Christmas song from their latest album - at a show in mid-January. Some said yes, it's a good idea; some said the opposite. The show goes on. You get the sense that the different egos, the disparate personalities, the occasional clash of expectations for and from the band have always created a nexus of conflict between band members, from which is perpetually harvested a unique type of musical vitality. Because if you don't have the background together, if you weren't all buddies in high school way before you even started the band, then that kind of dull, nagging conflict can tear you apart. But when the bonds that keep the band together are always stronger than the current discussion, when the original team synergy has prevailed for 40+ years, then the little arguments, if they even get to that point, are just extra salt in the soup. In the end, it is the fans that benefit. When the band starts playing, it is all love, and if there was ever any anger it is just the music that reflects a little bit of added complexity. Leave it on the stage - that's where it belongs.
The power of that live show, the solos, the crowd engagement - it all extends from the pioneers of jam music - bands like Widespread Panic, and the Grateful Dead, and Phish. But it also extends from the selfsame legacy of Los Lobos: this kind of improvised extension of popular songs is not just what you do to please the crowd - it's what you do to keep the band members excited about the set. Give the drummer some. Spread it around. The fans eat it up like popcorn. Los Lobos have been doing this for so long that they now benefit from a roots scene they had a strong hand in creating, and have nourished for decades. The world loves their music because they have been playing it for more than 40 years, and because it reflects the cultural roots of who they are, and have always been. With over 1.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify, Los Lobos is one-of-a-kind: Phish and Widespread Panic don't have those numbers. Los Lobos have endured precisely because they are unique: they do the jam-band thing, but they can also rock an uptempo accordion number in 2/4 time. How's that for versatility?
Chilling with Los Lobos was experienced through the lens of my friendship with Nathan, who is closest to David, Myles, and Mando, as far as band members and crew are concerned. Let no one think that my opinion is objective in any way - but that being said, I want to take a minute to acknowledge the deep talent of David Hidalgo. I do not say this lightly - he is a living legend. Some things you might not know about David: he plays guitar for Tom Waits, and he collaborates with Marc Ribot. He also plays cello, along with being a prominent lead guitarist for Los Lobos (Louie and Cesar also contribute solos), and he is responsible for playing the accordion, when necessary. He is gracious and soft-spoken. That is quite rare for someone in his position. Often, by now, the fame will have gotten to you. Not so for David. I can't speak for anyone else in the band, because I didn't spend much time with them, but to be fair they all seemed pretty cool. It is a rare famous band that has no divas. They are lucky to have each other. And I was lucky to have a moment with them.
In the end, Wally didn't make it. Maybe next time. I got to shake hands with Cesar before the show. I spoke briefly with Louie. I didn't meet Conrad, or Steve. Afterwards, I spent some time sipping whiskey in the hotel with Mando, and Nathan, and Myles, and Alice was there too; David showed up for a little while, long enough to play "Two Janes" for us while Nathan sang it, badly. David then realized that he had an early flight, and that was that. I wish I could do it all over again. For this band of roots-loving rock stars, and their crew, it was just another day on the road. For me, it was an unforgettable moment - as a journalist, and a fan of the music, it doesn't get much better.
David Hidalgo – vocals, guitar, accordion, fiddle, requinto jarocho Louie Pérez – drums, guitar, jarana huasteca, vocals Cesar Rosas – vocals, guitar, bajo sexto Conrad Lozano – bass, guitarron, vocals Steve Berlin – flute, baritone saxophone, tenor saxophone, keyboards, cowbell
Paris, France. Madison, Wisconsin. Los Angeles. Ashland, Oregon. Ottawa. I write music, I write about music, and I write code. See also: photography, prose, podcasting. I have 1 gorgeous wife, 2 amazing kids, and many interests.