We saw Los Lobos in concert on Sunday (July 24), at the Oregon Zoo amphitheater in Portland. Los Lonely Boys opened. I didn't know any Los Lonely Boys beyond their hits, but even from them I could tell it was a natural pairing. Not only is there the Latino rock thing (they kinda look like Los Lobos Jr.), but more importantly there's a lot of musical compatibility there, too. And in that respect we weren't disappointed: it was a great bill. If anything, we were disappointed in the headliners.
It was our first show at the Zoo, and it proved to be a surprisingly good place to see a show. The amphitheater is right by the elephant house, right next to the lion compound and a tropical bird dome. All that sounds like it should feel pretty hokey, but they've arranged it so that you can't actually see or hear any of the animals from the lawn, so it's pretty easy to forget you're in a zoo. (They flew some zoo birds over the audience before the show, though, which was cool: a red-tailed hawk, an ibis, a bald eagle. Made me wonder if the boys were going to play "Down On The Riverbed" in response)(they didn't.) Basically you feel like you're just on a fir-lined hilltop on the edge of Portland, with the sun setting beautifully just to the right of the stage, on a hot summer day in July. Can't go wrong, really.
Los Lonely Boys opened, and while they did play "Heaven," otherwise they seemed to be pushing their new album pretty hard. Which meant it was mostly songs we'd never heard, but that didn't matter. Within minutes we were fans. "Heaven," it turns out, while a great song, isn't all that representative of their stuff; mostly they were playing classic Texas blues trio stuff, ZZ Top by way of Stevie Ray, with any Latin flavor coming in mostly through the way their vocals sound like a younger Los Lobos, and the way they'd occasionally quote a Santana lick. That's a pretty sweet spot to hit - and the rest of the audience, most of them at least as old as me (meaning they had at least a good ten years on any of the Garza boys) seemed to think so too.
Really tight stuff, and in some ways it gave me a new appreciation for the power trio idea. I've been listening to Cream, Jimi, Rush, the Who all my life, so the concept is, shall we say, familiar to me, but all of those acts did extensive overdubbing in the studio - and live recordings aren't the same as being there. Watching Henry, Jojo, and Ringo go at it, I felt like a light went on: this is why trios work. In this kind of setting, at this volume, two guitars can sound like overkill anyway, and if your one guitarist has the goods, that's all you need.
Henry has the goods. He can blueswank with the best of them, and he looks the part, with his rock-star long hair. All three of them were just a lot of fun to watch on stage: energy, great licks, great look. Best song: a new one, actually, "16 Monkeys," funky stoner lyrics that could have been written in 1969, and ending in a long jam that passed through "Third Stone From The Sun" and ended with a quote from "Gypsy Queen."
Los Lobos. David Hidalgo sat in on drums for one song in the Lonely Boys' set, then on guitar for another couple - Cesar Rosas came out too and they all jammed on "Rip It Up." Classic rockabilly bruiser. Boded well for the main set.
But, hey, it was not to be. It was apparent from the first song that there were problems: David's mike didn't seem to be working, and his guitar was buried in the mix. They fixed the guitar problem after about three songs, but the voice thing turned out not to be a mix thing, but the simple fact that his voice was shot. That beautiful, soulful instrument was just gone - he couldn't sing for shit. It was painful to hear. After the first song Cesar (who seemed to be having some vocal problems too) joked that they'd been partying too much. Maybe that was the problem.
But I kind of doubt it. Bassist Conrad Lozano wasn't there, and when David introduced his replacement (David's son Vincent), he explained that Conrad had had a health scare the night before. He didn't say what, but said it had scared the hell out of them, and that he'd flown home, and Vincent had come up to fill in. We guessed that the health scare was somehow connected to the voice thing - like maybe they'd been up all night worried. Anyway, that's what we'd prefer to think. ...No word on the band's website about Conrad, but they don't seem to have canceled any dates, so I guess he's okay.
But between the bassist being gone and the vocalists being subpar at best, there wasn't much they could really do. They soldiered through a few songs, but about halfway through they seem to have decided to just, as the saying goes, shut up and play their guitars. A tortuous rendition of "Dream In Blue" turned beautiful as David took (finally) a gorgeous extended solo, and Steve Berlin followed it with a flute solo that took the jam someplace else entirely.
Then the Lonely Boys came out for what was no doubt a scheduled guest spot, and provided the highlight of the night. Henry, David, and Cesar trading licks on a long, blues-drenched "Little Wing." Hendrix's music - this is true - sounds better, less interred in the '60s, and just plain more alive with each passing year, and they did a good thing in bringing this out that night, under the stars.
But, Deadhead that I am, my favorite moment was during the inevitable "La Bamba" encore, which they extended by jamming their way into "Good Lovin'" in the middle and then back into "La Bamba." Which was - had to be - a wink in the direction of the fact that, in autumn '87, when Los Lobos were burning up the charts with "La Bamba," the Dead interpolated it into the middle of their classic take on "Good Lovin'" in several East Coast shows. The Dead and the Wolves had a well-known mutual admiration society going by that time, and of course the two songs are a natural fit. I don't know when Los Lobos started returning the favor, but anyway: I appreciated the wit of it. As well as the music, which was authoritative.
But I do want to see Los Lobos sometime when they're on their game.