Los Lobos named their first album Just Another Band from East L.A.(1978), a title they used again 15 years later for a two-disc compilation of their Slash/Warner Brothers recordings. That title expresses the bands pride in their Mexican-American background, but it also captures a bit of their disarming modesty. With all the bands accomplishments -- ten discs, a two-disc compilation, a four-disc box set, and an array of fascinating side projects (the Latin Playboys, Los Super Seven) -- the members of Los Lobos don't carry even a hint of pretentious rock-star attitude.
The bands newest disc, The Ride, celebrates 30 years of making music together. David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Louis Pérez, and Conrad Lozando had known each other since they were teens when they started Los Lobos in 1974 (Steve Berlin joined them in the early '80s). The band played weddings and bars in their neighborhood, so they learned rock'n'roll tunes, but they also learned how to play the traditional Mexican music they heard on their parents and grandparents record players, music Pérez once referred to as, " the soundtrack of the Barrio." As they became more experienced, they absorbed the influences of everything from Tex-Mex to all manner of American roots music.
As a result, their music has richness and breadth, as well as a spirit of discovery and experimentation. Los Lobos take the opportunity on The Ride to revisit a number of songs from their past and to look forward with a batch of new tunes. Elvis Costello, one of several guests on the disc, sings "Matter of Time," from 1984s How Will the Wolf Survive? The new version is slower and Costello puts his heart into it -- a great songwriter acknowledging two others (Hidalgo and Pérez). Little Willie G., of Thee Midnighters and Malo, sings on a very funky arrangement of "Is This All There Is?" from By The Light of the Moon. These new arrangements let Los Lobos show how vital and durable their back catalog is and how skillfully they can reinvigorate it.
The centerpiece of the disc combines a radically different interpretation of Rosas "Wicked Rain" from Kiko with Bobby Womacks "Across 110th Street." Womack joins the band for over eight minutes of glorious soul and the energy level never drops. Los Lobos have a remarkable talent for playing many kinds of music well without losing their own identity. On "Someday" they lay down a perfect Hi Records groove for Mavis Staples, while on "Hurry Tomorrow" (co-written by Rosas and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter) the guitars have the roar and bite of Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Nine of the 13 tracks on The Ride feature guest vocalists and musicians, including the stunning collaboration with the Mexican pop group Café Tacuba that opens the disc, "La Venganza de Los Pelados." Yet Los Lobos never sound like an anonymous session band. Its the singers who sound energized by performing with such distinctive musicians.
It might be easy to think of The Ride as a transitional disc because it celebrates Los Loboss achievements and they share the celebration with other musicians. For all that, its a cohesive disc that demonstrates the bands many facets and its continuing strength as songwriters and performers.
Dave Alvin's new disc, Ashgrove, includes a song he performs on The Ride, "Somewhere In Time," which he co-wrote with Hidalgo and Pérez. Ashgrove is Alvins first disc of new material in six years, and the well-worn Stratocaster hes posed with on the front cover will give you some idea of what hes up to. His recent studio recordings, King of California and Blackjack David, have been a little quieter than his first three albums or his live discs. For about half the tracks on Ashgrove Alvin plugs his Strat into the collection of old tube amps pictured on the back of the CD cover. Alvins always had a great ear for guitar tone, but here he cranks the amps up high and lets the speakers strain a little, and it sounds glorious and cleansing.
Alvin sings about the passage of time on Ashgrove and about the people and things that get away when life moves too fast. On the title track, he looks at those themes as a touring musician. The Ashgrove was a Los Angeles folk and blues club that in the '60s hosted legendary blues singers like Big Mama Thornton and up and comers like the Rising Sons. Alvin sings about how he was inspired by his visits there:
A few lines later hes, "Tryin to pay the rent/Tryin to figure out where my life went." He feels the pull of the road ("Well Im gonna play the blues tonight man/ Cause thats what I do"), but he knows hes missing some things -- his life passes by in a blur. In "Nine Volt Heart," which Alvin wrote with Rod Hodges of the Iguanas, he looks back at music on the radio as a source of comfort and enjoyment. After hearing these two songs, I wondered if Alvin occasionally finds that tending to the business of music sometimes overwhelms the reasons he became a musician.
Because Alvin knows the details of working-class life, he tells convincing stories about people who scrape by. In the gorgeous "Rio Grande" he sees the " silk stocking/dangling from the bedside light/I sobered up and called her name." The narrator in "Out of Control" visits his ex-wife and
Sometimes Alvin veers towards sentimentality, but he bases his songs on real people and real details and he obviously respects the people he sings about. His affection for his characters and for the things they care about keeps his songs honest.
Alvin is supported by Greg Leisz, who produced the disc, on various guitars and by Don Heffington on drums and Bob Glaub and David Piltch on bass. All are first-rate players and Leisz makes some especially fine contributions on slide and steel guitar. But Alvin himself sets the standard here, and hes on fire. Hes the best kind of guitar hero -- he never plays a note too many and he keeps the solos short and punchy. His description of the way the disc was recorded might give you some idea of what to expect sonically, "We had my guitar amplifier right next to me. It was baffled to limit the effect on the drums, but it still bled." The result is warm and honest, good words to describe Ashgrove.
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