When Los Lobos first
recorded "Is This All There Is?" for 1987's "By the Light of the Moon," the
song chronicled the feelings of displacement rooted in the immigrant
experience of the Mexican-American community that gave birth to the band in
The group recently remade the tune for its new album, "The Ride," and it
opened with the song at the Park West on Wednesday as part of a tour marking
its 30th anniversary as a band. Now, with a new groove somewhere between
funk and blues informing the familiar lines about how "we all came to talk
about it" and "searching for the promised land," it has become a celebratory
Los Lobos has endured all of the usual commercial highs and lows that
befall any long-running, hard-touring rock group, as well as some truly
extraordinary hardships, such as the murder of guitarist Cesar Rosas' wife.
And it has not only endured with its five core members still intact, but it
has become a better and stronger band.
There is no such thing as a bad Los Lobos show in 2004, only one that's a
bit less extraordinary than the others. Unfortunately, Wednesday was one of
the "off" nights.
The Park West was marred by a muddy mix -- unusual for this
great-sounding venue -- and bandleader David Hidalgo admitted that the group
hadn't had a soundcheck. But a bigger problem was the fact that the group
has shifted over the last few years to an ill-advised three-guitar lineup.
At the risk of renewing an argument I've had with readers in the past,
I'll restate my contention that there has never been a band in rock history
that wouldn't have been better off with two guitars instead of three.
Louie Perez -- a vital part of the group and a key songwriting partner
for Hidalgo -- left the drum set in the mid-'90s to come to the front of the
stage as a multi-instrumentalist, playing a little bit of whatever was
needed. But lately, he has been playing much more electric guitar, injecting
an unnecessary wedge between the already well-balanced lead-rhythm mix of
Rosas and Hidalgo.
Los Lobos was at its best when one or more of the three guitarists
shifted to another instrument, with Hidalgo picking up his trusty accordion
or goofing around on the timbales, or Perez moving to mandolin.
There were other high points, including a gripping version of the new
album's "Rita" that ended with saxophonist Steve Berlin taking a beautiful
flute solo, Los Lobos paying homage to Howlin' Wolf with some gutbucket
blues and the band giving us its traditional set-closing cumbia dance party,
showcasing the stellar team of amazing young drummer Ruben "Cougar" Estrada
and percussionist Victor Bisetti.
But the most moving part of the evening (and the stretch that sounded
best) was the trio of songs that found the five core members returning to
their original instruments and playing some of the old Mexican canciones
that they first played at weddings and backyard barbecues three decades ago
when they were just starting out. It was a poignant reminder of their roots,
and how lucky we are to still have them going strong.
Opening the show was the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra, which is supporting
"Napolean," the new album the sextet released in the spring. The veteran
Chicago blues/roots group overstayed its welcome and moved past annoying to
become downright grating by playing way too long -- more than an hour -- and
underscoring the fact that despite its accomplished musicianship, it has
zero distinction or personality, especially in comparison to a true original
like Los Lobos.