Los Lobos asked a rhetorical question with the title of their major label debut album 33 years ago: “How Will the Wolf Survive?”
The title referenced the endangered wild animal species, but also served double duty by raising the question about the band itself, Los Lobos being Spanish for The Wolves.
How would this rootsy Mexican-American band with a wild stylistic mix — traditional bolero, ranchera, corrido and norteño, rock, blues and R&B — break through in the punk rock milieu of early-‘80s Los Angeles and then, if that happened, break out of that to build a career?
Los Lobos, which plays two New Year’s Eve shows at City Winery, has lasted all these years — prospering at times, struggling at others — but, has been very U2-like. The band consists of the same four guys that founded the band: drummer-singer-lyricist Louie Pérez, singer-guitarist-songwriter David Hidalgo, singer-guitarist Cesar Rosas and bassist-singer Conrad Lozano, with the addition of saxophonist-keyboardist Steve Berlin, who joined the band in 1984 after producing their album the previous year.
After a Boston club gig in 1992, Pérez told me, “In this kind of road we've paved, we've run into detours and obstacles — not just from the record company, but of our own making too. We left behind a lot of baggage.”
So, what about that survival thing?
"In this kind of road we've paved, we've run into detours and obstacles -- not just from the record company, but of our own making too. We left behind a lot of baggage."Louie Pérez
“It’s crazy, right?” says Berlin, on the phone from Chicago before a gig. “I would say it’s a couple things. A big part of it would be the people that we are. We’re all still married to our first wives — we’re not shopping for an upgrade, like a lot of people seem to be — that we’re not, by nature, people that are trying to change things for change’s sake.
“The other part of it is what creates dissension in bands? One of them is unfulfilled ambition, which is if somebody wants to do something outside the sphere of the band and it either gets pooh-poohed or there’s hostility. In our case, it’s like as long as we show up for the gigs, we can do what we want to do. So, there’s never been any issue with any extracurricular stuff, like the records I produce for the Latin Playboys or Cesar’s solo record. When you get out and see how other people do stuff, it’s useful.”
Their first Boston gig, in 1984, was at the long-gone punk club, the Rat. By 1990, they’d zoomed up to headlining status at the summer shed in Mansfield, then called Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts. They were still riding the success of their 1987 mainstream hit, a cover of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.”
Nowadays, Los Lobos can play just about anywhere, upscale or downscale. Berlin recalls two back-to-back nights a couple of years ago where they played Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco — “which is effectively like a Carnegie Hall where we played folkloric stuff” — and the next night at a biker rally in Russian River [Valley], California. “It was no big deal,” Berlin says. “It was only in retrospect that it seemed that way, ‘Wow that was an unusual twofer.’ But it wasn’t that unusual; it’s almost a normal week.”
Although they came out of the LA punk scene, they were more of a roots-rock band and one with lyrics in both Spanish and English. “I think we felt a kinship to the [punk] energy and to the spirit more than the sonics,” Berlin says. “We never really have been a full-fledged member of anybody’s club. We borrowed and took from all these guys, the punk rock bands we came up with, X and Black Flag and the Germs. That was a really inspiring time. Everybody was inventing everything, a musical vocabulary, a personal vocabulary — everything all happening at once.”
Over the past decade or so, jam band fans have attached themselves to Los Lobos, even though Los Lobos songs are tightly structured.
"We have a pretty low boredom threshold, so I think if we started doing the same thing every night the same way, we would tend to lose interest quickly."Steve Berlin
“It’s a fun group to be with,” Berlin says. “They’re very accommodating and, yes, we’re respected in that world, but we’re not Phish, we’re not Widespread Panic. We don’t really do what those bands do — we don’t play for four hours — but we can certainly make them happy. The jam bands are open-eared. There are not any rules per se. They like jazz, bluegrass, funk. The wideness of their appetite for different ideas is really powerful and very rewarding as a player.”
Los Lobos can do shows in acoustic or electric, amplified formats, but Berlin says for the Boston gigs (and the sold-out concert at Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River Dec. 30), they’re bringing the electric show and a roster of over 100 ready-to-play songs.
Los Lobos likes to switch sets up every night. “I think it’s the least we can do,” says Berlin. “It’s incumbent upon us to create a new experience every night. With all the material we have, it’s cool [to vary the set]. Doing these residency shows, we have people coming back night to night to night and it’s very important to me. I would hate to pay that much money and see a band execute the same show two or three nights in a row. And we have a pretty low boredom threshold, so I think if we started doing the same thing every night the same way, we would tend to lose interest quickly.”
The band has been doing City Winery residencies in other cities for the past 10 years, Berlin says. Los Lobos, of course, is a high-energy outfit and City Winery is a sit-down club with long tables and tightly packed chairs.
“It suits not every audience, but our audience now is generally people who appreciate a fine meal, excellent drinks and the ability to see music comfortably,” Berlin says. “There’s a large flock of our audience who don’t want to stand up for two hours and get jostled. ... Obviously, you wouldn’t want to see a punk rock show in one of these, but for a sit-down audience or a folksinger or for some of the stuff we do it’s kind of perfect.”
That’s not to say the audience doesn’t groove. And, Berlin adds, people “do get up and dance at the end of the set,” noting there are areas near the sides and back bar where dancing can break out.
"I think one of the features of us as a thing is we can, from moment-to-moment or song-to-song, go from a party band to a thoughtful band to a folkloric band to whatever else you got."Steve Berlin
But a sit-down club does suggest the space is more of a listening room, and thus fans are more prone to focus on the musicianship and lyrics, most written by Pérez and sung by Hidalgo. Pérez is a great storyteller in song, and often weaves tales that are darker and more tangled than the music may suggest.
“One of the cool things about Louie’s lyrics is there are so many levels and so many ways to appreciate it,” says Berlin. “He really is a true poet. I think one of the features of us as a thing is we can, from moment-to-moment or song-to-song, go from a party band to a thoughtful band to a folkloric band to whatever else you got. Forty years into this deal, we’ve figured out a lot of stuff.”
Los Lobos last album release, 2015’s “Gates of Gold,” was its 24th studio effort, and it was a strong one, addressing themes of both immigration and mortality. Berlin says the band’s internal clock is now starting to make them think about the next record. And he believes creating new music is vital to a band’s integrity. But there are difficulties — some inherent to being a band with this kind of longevity and some practical, having to do with the business side of music.
For one thing, for the first time since their beginnings with Slash/Warner Bros., Los Lobos are label-less.
“Without a label, it makes a really big difference,” says Berlin. “It was a business arrangement. You sign a contract, you’ve got to deliver. Now, when it’s all up to us to create the impetus to create, it’s a little different. It’s much harder to get everybody thinking clearly about it, not knowing where it’s going to come out or how it’s going to come out. And frankly, we’re not entrepreneurial by nature. It’s hard to get our heads around how to do it the other way [crowdsourcing]. It’s a tough thing to acquire this late in our career.”
From a creative viewpoint, too, there are other issues, Berlin admits. “I think at this stage of our careers, it’s hard to make a new record that doesn’t sound like something we’ve done already,” he says. “To a certain extent, we have this vocabulary that we use, this palette, and it’s a challenge to find new ways to say something. I think ‘Gates of Gold’ stands in the continuum of our records and it has its own identity. And the songs are really good — that’s where it starts.
“What we’ve been learning about ourselves, especially over the last three or four records, it’s not as easy to get from here to there. The process of going from, ‘Oh yeah, we need some new songs,’ to writing and finishing and doing everything that goes along with it is not a walk through the park. Not that it ever was, but it certainly used to be easier than it is now.”
"To a certain extent, we have this vocabulary that we use, this palette, and it’s a challenge to find new ways to say something."Steve Berlin
But Los Lobos has the ace in the hole of having built a reputation as an ever-sizzling live band: Fans keep coming back to see them. As they gear up for New Year’s Eve, one wonders if Los Lobos has any special tricks up their sleeve.
“Uh, we’ll probably put our version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ in there somewhere,” Berlin says. “Aside from that, there’s a dearth of quality New Year’s Eve songs. A lot of Christmas songs, a couple of Hanukkah songs, but I’d be hard put to think of another New Year’s Eve song. But we’ll be festive, that much I can guarantee you.”
Los Lobos performs two shows at City Winery on Dec. 31, one at 7 p.m. and the other at 10 p.m.