Twelve covers that shine a light on the soul of Los Lobos
Los Lobos are one of the greatest American bands of the last 40 years with their signature mix of rock, blues, country, R&B, folk, cumbia, mariachi and norteña. Their claim to greatness is not based on some artistic high point in their past, but a sustained career that has seen the release of records of surprising consistency and innovation throughout their career. Amazingly, they have also maintained their original line-up of David Hidalgo (vocals, guitars), Louie Pérez Jr. (vocals, guitars), Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitars, bass, Hammond B3 organ), Conrad Lozano (vocals, bass) and Steve Berlin (saxes, midi sax, keyboards) and this stability, coupled with the musical chops of each individual member, helps explain the instrumental excellence that is also a key band characteristic. Despite the variety of their influences and sounds, they like to refer to themselves as “just another band from East LA” and this is reinforced with the release of ‘Native Songs’ which is an album of covers that celebrates the variety of music from Los Lobos’s hometown, Los Angeles, and honours their own local influences. The band are no strangers to covers, they had a UK and US number one hit with a cover of Richie Valens ‘La Bamba’ and recorded an album of Disney covers and have included covers on their albums and in live performances. Los Lobos signed to New West Records in 2019 and were faced with the challenge of delivering a new album in 2020. They couldn’t find a window to write and recorded a full album in their existing schedule, so hit upon the idea of a covers album to shorten the process and this worked well with the subsequent restrictions of COVID recording.
The album starts with a clear statement of intent with a cover of Chicano rock’n’soul innovators Thee Midniters’ ‘Love Special Delivery’. The ease with which Los Lobos adapt the song to their own sound is a clear clue as to how influential Thee Midniters have been to the Los Lobos sound. Lest we forget, Tamla Motown may have been founded in Detroit, but the label achieved some of its greatest commercial and artistic success when it was based in Los Angeles. A key part of this success was the songwriting of Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield and Strong’s 1961 single ‘Misery’ brings echoes of the delta to the party that is ‘Native Sons’. The Buffalo Springfield could lay claim to being one of the most important mid-‘60s Los Angeles bands and ‘Bluebird’ is a pivotal song in their canon. It was meant to consolidate the success of ‘For What It’s Worth’ and was featured in extended versions in live performances. Unfortunately, it signalled the beginning of the end of the band and Los Lobos cover it here as a two-header with ‘For What It’s Worth’ that does justice to the guitars of Stephen Stills and Neil Young and the psychedelic sounds emerging in the mid-60s. Founding father of Chicano music Lalo Guerrero’s 1949 Pachuco hit ‘Los Chucas Suaves’ is up next with the latin and swing dials turned up. David Hidalgo and Louie Perez Jr both sight Jackson Browne’s ‘Jamaica Say You Will’ as a prime influence on their own songwriting since they were at school. Los Lobos are able to put their own stamp on this oft cover song. Percy Mayfield was not only a great performer but also a superb songwriter and was one of the artists Ray Charles signed to his own Tangerine Records when he left Atlantic and moved to ABC. ‘Never No More’ was originally released in 1962 and Los Lobos bring their own swinging sound to this West Coast urban blues tune.
Just in case we forget that Los Lobos have a great catalogue of their own self-written songs, their own ‘Native Son’ sits comfortably next to the cover versions on ‘Native Sons’. The Premiers were a Chicano garage band from the ‘60s who had success with Don and Dewey’s ‘Farmer John’, which has been a live favourite of Los Lobos for many years. They released a single version in 1981 but it has now finally been included on a Los Lobos album. Willie Bobo was a latin jazz percussionist and songwriter and Los Lobos’s version of his ‘Dichoso’ shows they are much more than a simple rock band. The Beach Boys are the quintessential LA band who have had a troubled recording history with unbelievable recorded highs and lows. Los Lobos cover the Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks co-write, with input from Tandyn Almer, Ray Kennedy and Jack Rieley, ‘Sail On Sailor’, with help from Phil Parlapiano on keyboards and it is from the time when The Beach Boys were aiming for the progressive rock market and the track is still a favourite on Classic Rock stations. The original was sung by Blondie Chapman and Los Lobos rise to the challenge of such an iconic cover. War were a fusion band in the best sense and Los Lobos tackle their 1972 song ‘The World Is A Ghetto’ with their own 9 minutes 18 seconds length version remaining true to the original album, rather than the single, version. Los Lobos and the Blasters have a shared history in the Los Angeles cowpunk scene of the late ‘70s early ‘80s and also shared the services of Los Lobos member Steve Berlin. This period is celebrated with a version of the Blasters’ ‘Flat Top Joint’ from their 1980 debut album. The trip through the music of Los Angeles ends with a cover of The Jaguars’ ‘Where Lovers Go’ from 1965. The self-written track was a local hit for the Jaguars but it didn’t make the national charts. Los Lobos remain true to the spirit of the original in this deep dive into Chicano musical culture.
Sometimes when an established act records an album of covers alarm bells start ringing that the resulting record will not match the artist’s usual standard. Los Lobos are too good to let that happen, and their heartfelt tribute to their own hometown and influences is a great rocking party record that celebrates the signature sound of Los Lobos through a variety of genres and songs and helps shine a light on how Los Lobos developed their unique sound. If you are new to Los Lobos this would be a good introduction to their unique sound, and if you are already a fan then this is a must-listen.