One of America’s greatest rock bands of all time played two of the country’s most historic venues this past weekend – and it only took a few hours on Interstate 35 to enjoy both shows varied.
Los Lobos, a band that can move from psychedelic garage rock to rhythmic cumbias to elegant norteño or folk ballads with unparalleled ease, has returned to the Upper Midwest to play two venues tied to their storied past.
The fact that rock legends from sunny east Los Angeles agreed to play these shows in the dead of winter shows you how special the venues are to them.
On Friday, they revisited First Avenue, the eclectic punk rock club in downtown Minneapolis that hosted some of their early gigs in sub-freezing weather in the early ’80s. However, they weren’t there. not played since 1996.
Then on Saturday, the influential band – which landed their biggest hit in 1987 with the soundtrack to Ritchie Valens’ biopic “La Bamba” – returned to the site of Valens’ last gig, the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Now a National Historic Landmark, the post-war dance hall brought Los Lobos for its annual Winter Dance Party weekend, commemorating the tragic night in 1959 when Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper died in a crash. plane after their show there.
If we add up the number of years that the Lobos, the Surf and First Ave have provided entertainment for music lovers, it would be around 175. And yet the three institutions showed over the weekend just how much they defied the juvenile laws of rock. ‘n’ roll – though in the band’s case there are whispers of retirement and signs that the road won’t last forever.
Los Lobos made the trip norte-por-noreste without one of the band’s four members since 1973, bassist Conrad Lozano. Hip surgery was the reason.
Singer/guitarist David Hidalgo’s son Vincent played bass, adding a bit of deja vu as he looks a lot like his dad when Los Lobos first arrived in Minneapolis to play the small venue at First Ave.
“We played 7th St. Entry with Soul Asylum, which left us in the dust,” Hidalgo senior recalled toward the end of Friday’s set. “It was the first time I felt 5 degrees in my life.”
With a new drummer also in tow – long-time Beastie Boys backer Alfredo Ortiz – the band played one of their fastest, spirited sets in years at First Ave. This one wasn’t for a seated theater like the Ordway, where they last played in town.
They went through many tracks from their early 80s setlists, including “Evangeline”, “Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio”, “Will the Wolf Survive?” and “Don’t worry baby.” Hidalgo’s funkier counterpart Cesar Rosas also guided them through several highlights of their underrated late 90s/2000s albums, including the opener “La Venganza de los Pelados”, “Chuco’s Cumbia” and “Cumbia Raza”.
Adding even more volume and speed, the covers were taken from their latest album, “Native Sons”, a tribute to the Los Angeles music scene.
Truly, the new record is a testament to how Los Lobos themselves are as wealthy as the city and border territory that spawned them. It was evident in concert as they alternated between “Love Special Delivery” by Chicano rock pioneers Thee Midniters, “Sail on, Sailor” by the Beach Boys and “Flat Top Joint” by punky roots rockers the Blasters (the band the Lobos opened for when they first played in the main venue at First Ave).
Saturday’s shorter Surf Ballroom set was more about paying homage to the musical hero who had the biggest impact on the band. They started with Valens’ fireball rocker “Ohh, My Head”, gracefully swayed on “Oh Donna” and ripped into “Come on, Let’s Go” with help from Ritchie’s sister, Connie Valens – who lovingly recalled how her mother cooked for Lobos members.
Hidalgo, in turn, reflected on Valens’ film before ending the show with “La Bamba,” the Valens cover that propelled Los Lobos to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 and won them a Grammy record of the year: “It helped pulled us out and changed our lives,” he said.
Farewell gigs or not, these weekend gigs reiterated the band’s impact on many diehard Midwestern fans, some of whom attended both shows – Latin Americans whose pride was bolstered by the success of Los Lobos, to music nerds whose definition of “American music” was immeasurably extended, to more laid-back fun-seekers who know a good party when it comes to town. Or in a nearby town, too.