Los Lobos turns up the beat

By Jae-Ha Kim
Chicago Sun-Times
October 26, 1996

You wouldn’t expect to see fans doing the polka at a rock concert, but then again, Los Lobos isn’t just any old rock ‘n’ roll band. So when the East Los Angelenos kicked into a rowdy polka, Latin style, halfway through their sold-out concert Friday night at the Riviera, the fans followed suit by partnering up and actually dancing  (rather than body surfing or slam dancing).

A roots-rock band in the truest sense, Los Lobos’ songs are infused with blues, jazz and folk (American and Latin American). Their set list reflected this with cuts from their impressive catalog, notably their exquisitely surreal “Kiko” (1992) and their more straight-forward current album “Colossal Head.”

While the musicians may sometimes come across as dour in demeanor, there’s no mistaking the joy in their music. Fronted by singers-guitarists David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, the five-man band was supplemented by percussionist Victor Bisetti, who dueled on drums with Louis Perez. Perez later left his kit to take center stage as a third guitarist. Shortly after, Hidalgo traded his guitar for an accordion, which induced chants of “Polka!  Polka!” from the audience.

If you get the idea that each member of the band is multitalented, you would be correct. And unlike many of the groups that try to pass off indulgent noodling for virtuosity, the musicians in Los Lobos are skilled enough to know that less often is more. And when they do stretch out, they’re so well practiced that their impeccable precision leaves the mind reeling. The nucleus of Los Lobos may have played together for more than 20 years, but the musicians play with more energy than colleagues half their age.

Los Lobos has the added cachet of having two distinctive singers. Songwriters Rosas and Hidalgo have beautifully different voices that blend harmoniously. Rosas had the lead honors in the evening’s first song, “I Walk Alone” from their 1990 album “The Neighborhood.”

Had they capitalized on the popularity of their work on the “La Bamba” soundtrack  of the late 1980s, Los Lobos’ career could have been more commercially successful. Instead, they remained true to their rule of never repeating themselves and have carved out a little niche that is exclusive to them.

Los Lobos will headline at Metro on Nov. 3.

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