Los Lobos |Photo from www.loslobos.org
By Joe Livernois
This was my challenge: Finding the one Los Lobos performance on the Central Coast that stands out among the rest. Everything else I’ve done with Monterey Rocks has been a slam dunk. Without doubt, Los Lobos deserves to be on our list of Top 25 rock ‘n’ roll performances in California’s middle earth. But there is a lot to choose from when it comes to the band from East L.A.
Over the years, no rock band has made more appearances on the Central Coast than Los Lobos. Neil Young has been around a lot, but he typically sticks to the same haunts. Los Lobos is everywhere.
I’ve seen them countless times at the Catalyst. But I’ve seen them in civic auditoriums, at wineries, at empty fields and at local fundraising benefits. I saw them from my perch on a bale of straw, one of about 34 other Lobos-heads at a badly promoted chili cookoff in King City. I saw them open for Santana at the Earthquake Relief benefit at Watsonville High School. Fred Hernandez, a friend of mine and a percussionist, got to see them at an impromptu show they did for an audience of 70 at the now-defunct Jazz & Blues Company store at The Crossroads in Carmel. Hernandez said he recalls that the band beckoned folks from the gathering to come forward to play the congas with the band. It could have been Hernandez’s big break, but he said he “chickened out.”
And they haven’t stopped. They released their first Christmas album not long ago, and last week their publicity department boasted that “Llego Navidad” was Los Lobos’ first Top 10 Latin album since 2000. The band will also be back in town this spring, when they do two shows at Moe’s Alley on April 10.
Los Lobos is ubiquitous around here, the de facto house band for the Central Coast, and for good reason. Their genre-bending blend of funk, soul, Dead-jam, thrash-rock, Americana and Mexican traditional music reflects the demographics and the cultural perspectives of the Central Coast better than any rock band ever could. Every Lobos show feels like a family gathering. We saw the kids in the band grow up and grow old, and we watched their families backstage or blending into the crowds.
The core members of the group — David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Cesar Rosas, Steve and Conrad Lozano — have been playing music together since their high school days, in 1973, and together they are the greatest rock band from East L.A. They played straight rock for school functions, weddings, quinceaneras and other neighborhood events for several years, but soon tired of their reputation as a cover band. Raised on traditional conjunto music but gravitating to the great Los Angeles rockers of the day, they started writing songs that blended traditional Mexican sounds with meaty rock beats.
They released an extended-play album in 1983 called “… And a Time to Dance,” which excited critics but sold only 50,000 copies. It was enough for the group to earn enough money to buy a Dodge van, which allowed them to launch their first U.S. tour. They made their first appearance on the Central Coast on Aug. 24, 1983, when they opened for The Blasters at The Catalyst in Santa Cruz. They returned to Santa Cruz a year later, when they opened for The Clash at the Civic Auditorium. (Even back then, Los Lobos was covering Ritchie Valens music, with “Come On, Let’s Go” and “That’s My Little Suzie.”)
When asking around about the top shows in Monterey County, many friends and musicians picked specific Los Lobos performances that rocked their world. But I’m going out on a limb here with one of the first Los Lobos shows I ever saw (and I’ve seen at least three dozen).
It was during the Santa Cruz County Fair on Sept. 13, 1987. The year of “La Bamba.” The docu-drama chronicling the life of Ritchie Valens had been released a few months earlier and the crowd at the fairgrounds felt all family-familiar.
Ritchie Valens and his family were living in L.A.’s Pocoima neighborhood when he hit the big time with a song called “Donna” and with his rockin’ take on the traditional “La Bamba.” His life ended the day the music died — on February 3, 1959 — in a plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Valens was only 17 when he died.
Decades later, the Valens family was mostly living in Watsonville and had adopted the Los Lobos crew as their own. So when film producer Taylor Hackford came around to discuss his vision for a docu-drama about Ritchie Valens, Connie Valens, Ritchie’s sister, insisted that Los Lobos do the soundtrack. “I said, ‘There’s only one choice — Los Lobos,” Valens told Lane Wallace, a Valenzuela family friend.
Luis Valdez, the fabled guerilla stage director from El Teatro Campesino in nearby San Juan Bautista, directed “La Bamba.” If you didn’t hear the Los Lobos version of “La Bamba” or Valens’ original in the summer of ’87, you weren’t listening to the radio. At the premiere of the movie in early July at the 1,000-plus-seat Fox Theater in Watsonville, Concepcion “Connie” Valenzuela, Ritchie’s mother, spoke to the sellout audience without a microphone.
By then, the Valenzuelas had already become part of the extended Los Lobos family. Soon after they met, at a show in Santa Cruz, Connie Valenzuela invited the band to visit in Watsonville, according to Chris Morris, in his book about the band called “Los Lobos: Dream in Blue.” During that first visit, she showed band members her son’s memorabilia. Then she brought out an old outfit that Valens used to wear on stage. She handed it to Cesar Rosas, told him to try it on.
“Cesar just stood there trembling, his knees knocking,” Perez told Morris.
More than any other band, Los Lobos embodied the rocking spirit of Ritchie Valens, the blazing SoCal-driven Chicano blend of garage rock and cumbia, boleros and norteños, throwing different things out there, going their own way, making music for the sake of music and rarely disappointing their fans.
Sixty-plus years after Valens’ plane went down, it’s hard to fathom how revolutionary “La Bamba” was when Valens recorded the single. It had been an old tejano folk song from Veracruz, and Valens infused it with Elvis hip. It was a Top 40 hit — and it was all in Spanish. Decades later, Los Lobos also went their own way, breaking convention and developing some of the most hard-core fan bases in rock.
It’s little wonder that Ritchie Valens’ mother referred to Los Lobos as “her boys.”
Still, getting asked to jump into Luis Valdez’s film was a challenge. Of course they would say yes, but it was a heady time. They were working at the time with T-Bone Burnett on “By the Light of the Moon,” one of their greatest albums, when they got the call from Valdez. They were working on their own great songs.
They found themselves recording “Light of the Moon” at one studio at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, then crossing a basketball court to record tracks in another room at the studio for “La Bamba.” Perez said Prince was also recording, and they’d run past him while he was shooting hoops between recording his own album. “We made the turn around the corner and Prince looked at us, and I think he thought he was going to die,” Perez told Morris. “Here are these four Mexicans running … toward him. His life probably flashed in front of him.”
Los Lobos recorded the title track and seven other songs for the film.
At the fair two months after the movie premiere, on Sept.13, 1987, Los Lobos arrived at the dusty confines of the Santa Cruz Fairgrounds in Watsonville. They spent much of the afternoon playing their old catalog, but also introduced several cuts from the “Light of the Moon” album, including “Prenda de Alma,” “One Time One Night” and “Shakin’ Shakin’ Shakes.”
And then they pulled the entire Valenzuela family to the stage. It was momentous and it was touching. The elder Connie Valenzuela’s health had declined, and “it took four or five guys to lift her wheelchair onto the stage,” her daughter recalled. Mrs. Valenzuela, who died a month later at the age of 72, spoke a few words and “got a standing ovation,” Valens said. To the younger Connie Valens, the crowd was cheering not only for her mother, but for Ritchie and his music, the entire Valens family, and Los Lobos.
Drawing one of the biggest ovations that afternoon was Bob Valenzuela, the “jealous brother” portrayed in the movie by Esai Morales.
Wallace remembers the rest.
“Los Lobos playfully teased the crowd with a few bars of ‘La Bamba,’ he said. They weren’t fooling anybody. Then, a few seconds later, they delivered what the crowd came for:
“Para bailar La Bamba
Para bailar La Bamba
Se necesita una poca de gracia
Una poca de gracia
Y otra cosita,
Y arriba y arriba”
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