Live music Review

David Hidalgo and Louie Perez of Los Lobos at the James Armstrong Theatre
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Published January 15, 2009

It was clear from the opening remarks – delivered by Culture Clash co-founder Richard Montoya – that the band wouldn’t be cranking out “La Bamba” (their claim to fame, nationally speaking). Nonetheless, the young lady sitting next to me last Sunday at the James Armstrong Theatre in Torrance was upset that it wasn’t played.
David Hidalgo and Louie Perez probably figured that we’d heard the song enough times already. Besides, the concert took on the air of a laid back, intimate gathering for friends and family – and Hidalgo and Perez had plenty of both on hand – that would reflect upon the nearly four decades that the two long-time friends from Garfield High School in East L.A. have been collaborating.
The show opened with Hidalgo singing “Will The Wolf Survive?” from the 1984 album of more or less the same name. Played on amplified acoustic guitars, the music sounded earnest and soulful, the vocals plaintive – although not especially winsome. Maybe I needed to warm to Hidalgo’s voice, for it did get more appealing as the evening progressed. Now, Hidalgo’s a big guy and resembles one of those banjo-strumming bears in “Song of the South” or Disneyland’s now-defunct Bear Country Jamboree. He also has a slightly weary look about him, as if he’d just run out to his car to get something and is still short of breath.
David Perez, on the other hand, is slighter of build and shorter – you might as well picture Penn and Teller – and when he plays he tends to stand immobile with that stoic expression once so characteristic of Bill Wyman, the former Rolling Stones bassist.
On the plus side, both musicians had pleasant memories of the South Bay – Hidalgo of the Redondo Beach Pier and Perez (I’m dating myself, he said) of the Hermosa Biltmore Hotel, which was torn down in the 1960s long before any of us were born.
Let’s get back to “Will The Wolf Survive?” The song now seems more wistful than ever, like a question that Hidalgo and Perez might be asking of themselves as they survey what they’ve left scattered along the trail of so many years together.
The last record by Los Lobos, “The Town and The City,” came out in 2006, although there’s a new disc, “The Early Songs,” which is just that, stuff pulled from the vaults – or at least from a closet in West L.A., as Perez mentioned a couple of times.
Taking its cue from the album, the show itself touched upon nearly every aspect of the group’s history, including a pair of percussive-heavy gems from their Latin Playboys side project. By and large, we were treated to mid-tempo rockers, folkish ballads distilled through the immigrant experience, Latin-flavored tunes, naturally, and even one that resulted from Hidalgo’s encounter with some Okinawa musicians. At its core, though, there was an underlying sense of tradition: This stuff’s authentic; no drum machines, synthesizers, or guitar pyrotechnics for shock value. Furthermore, most of the music carries a homespun, at times slightly gritty feel, which makes one remember that the band emerged during an era when New Wave was shifting between power pop and punk and L.A. was vibrant with such bands as X and The Blasters and The Go-Go’s, of course, but also The Bus Boys, the locally based Twisters, The Plimsouls, and who can forget The Plugz, who later became Los Cruzados? The Plugz also released a version of “La Bamba,” but it was too punkish to garner more than a cult following.
The show never became monotonous or self-indulgent, because not only did Hidalgo and Perez pick up and play all sorts of guitars (almost as often as David Lindley had done on the previous night down at Brixton’s in Redondo), they played the mandolin and the violin and – what applause there was for this when Hidalgo sank his fingers into it – the accordion. A bass player and a drummer, and occasionally a second drummer, so to speak, joined in. The evening was casual but well paced. True, they never did get around to playing “La Bamba,” not even as an encore, but that’s one tune nobody’s gonna be at a loss to track down.
The evening ended with a Q&A moderated by the aforementioned Richard Montoya, who is a very, very funny guy, and a superb playwright (you’ve seen reviews of “Chavez Ravine,” “Water & Power,” and “Zorro in Hell” in these pages). However, the audience members who asked questions tended to preface everything with lengthy, obsequious praise, tiring everyone out before the question could actually emerge. If Montoya had just sat down on stage with David and Louie and quizzed them about their careers it might have made for a more illuminating finale to an enjoyable, relaxing night.
The James Armstrong Theatre nearly had a full house for this concert, which was sponsored by Toyota as an American Perspectives Event. Two nights before, Art Garfunkel had played to a sold-out crowd in the same venue. Chris Korblein is coming up on Feb. 6, and The Four Freshmen with Lesley Gore on Feb. 14. You do remember “It’s My Party?” and “It’s Judy’s Turn To Cry,” don’t you? Nothing too edgy on the horizon, but if Sunday night’s show is a harbinger of what’s in store, even if sporadically, we’ll be looking more closely at the coming season. ER