Off night doesn't mean a bad show for Los Lobos


July 2, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

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 East L.A.

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 anthem.

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.