Los Lobos improves the neighborhood
By MARTY RACINE, Staff
Occasionally comes a concert to renew the spirit.
So it came to pass Wednesday at the Tower Theater, when Chicano rockers Los Lobos gave everything they had in a two-hour concert supporting their new album, "The Neighborhood. " Despite a muddy sound mix, this was pop in all its glory. It gave flight to the soul, reaffirmed the humanity of working-class rock 'n' roll when touched by ancient strains of an ethnic folk music.
And it was a helluva lot of fun.
On the surface, the billing of Los Lobos with opener Steve Earle seemed quite appropriate. Both have operated outside the mainstream of radio and MTV.
Both write soulful grassroots songs detailing the lay of the social/political landscape. Both hail from the Southwest.
But you couldn't explain that to a revolving capacity crowd of about 800. A significant turnover marked the set change, with redneck hippie Earle fans being replaced by Hispanics.
Earle's 75-minute gig spotlighted his new LP, "The Hard Way", and amounted to a homecoming. The San Antonio native's family was present, and sister Stacey played rhythm guitar and tambourine. Guitarist Zip Gibson, from Pasadena, also brought an entourage. (Earle's band, the Dukes, later jammed with the Basics at Blythe Spirits.)
Dirtied by a poor sound mix, bothered by a cold, and never a great enunciator anyway, Earle didn't come across. In four Houston shows since he emerged with "Guitar Town" he's become increasingly strident and depressing, an Angry Young Loner consumed by his own bitterness. There is little humor in his demeanor to cut the clay.
His tendency to sermonize also is a turnoff - and his facts are inaccurate. Introducing "Johnny Come Lately", he remarked that U.S. fighting men (he didn't say women) in the Persion Gulf are there because they were out of work here - inferring that the poor carry the burden of war. True or not, that doesn't account for the reservists over there who had to "leave" their jobs.
Other protest songs, such as the new "Justice in Ontario", never quite explained the source of anger - at least in the sonics of a concert situation. Earle just mumbled through.
Credit him for challenging the country establishment, but if Earle doesn't get out of the doldrums, it's going to be a long winter of discontent.
In our hurry to deify Los Lobos as a unique ethnic/roots force we tend to overlook that it's a great rock 'n' roll band that builds its power from both a solid blues base and the hard-driving traditions of San Antonio "conjunto".
Armed with a second percussionist, the band came peeling out with the new "I Walk Alone" and "Evangeline". David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas already had their electric guitars up to torque.
They followed with the evocative "Will the Wolf Survive?", I Got to Let You Know and the winsome new "Emily", before Hidalgo strapped on the black-and-gold accordion and squeezed out two of the prettiest Mexican folk songs.
From there, it was back to the blues with "I Can't Understand", followed by the most beautiful "Angel Dance", The Giving Tree and "Little John of God", all new ones.
On another blues, "My Baby's Gone", the stoic but smiling Hidalgo and the goateed Rosas traded fierce twin guitar leads that would make any rock band gape. On the old rock chestnut "Come On Let's Go", saxophonist Steve Berlin put down his instrument and ventured into the box seats in the second tier, mingling with the audience.
During "Down on the Riverbed", Rosas, in sunglasses, spotted a little tyke - he couldn't have been more than 5 - at the lip of the stage who had been boogieing and playing air drums all set long next to his father. Rosas approached, kneeled and let the kid strum along on his guitar.
It was one of those rare, sweet moments.
With bassist Conrad Lozano pumping elastic runs, the new "Jenny's Got a Pony" was the hottest rocker of the night, cooled off only by another acoustic interlude that led into the title track from "The Neighborhood". The band closed the set proper with another blustery, low-riding blues, "Don't Worry Baby".
On the first encore, a stage hand strung Christmas lights around a mike stand, the Star of Bethleham was lit in bulbs over the Virgin Mary on Louie Perez's bass drum, the band members tossed gifts of candy and fruit into the audience, and Rosas (on acoustic guitar) and Berlin noodled through an impromptu "The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)". Poignant and moving.
Not nearly through, Lobos leaned into a crackling instrumental blues jam, the most melodic "One Time One Night" and a surprise version of the Blasters' Marie Marie.
The crowd wanted more, and the Tower, which had no late disco this night, obliged by keeping the house lights down. The band returned to dedicate "Estoy Sentado Aqui" to Flaco Jimenez and then finished a long journey with a rocker.
It added up to one of the best concerts of the year - heartfelt, unpretentious, danceable, and full of love and colorful musicianship. One time, one night, pop had a sense of dignity.