Los Lobos: Did the Wolf Survive?

Los Lobos: Backs to the Future

Everything lately has been circles, cycles, orbits. Forget your Saturn return; once the 25th high school reunion rolls past (scroll down or click for reunion Pepper entries on June 5 and June 7) your internal deck is stuck on Repeat as surely as your folks’ VCR is set for 12:00. At least mine is.

Last night Los Lobos serenaded the warm belly of the overcast in Prospect Park, the first kiss in the summer Celebrate Brooklyn seduction. I never make it to as many of these wonderful shows as I should; just being there is usually pleasure enough, but of course summer in the City is full of good intentions, great distractions, and days that tickle past like small-handed breezes on a light evening sweat.

Mojitos and shrimp cocktail in Lou’s Park Slope garden leave us just enough time to join the long amiable line filing in to the bandshell grounds. Who goes to Prospect Park? A little bit of everyone: kids and families, prowling teens in singles and couples and flocks, displaced hipsters and rampant residents, blinking fan-atics, the anointed and the appointed, the invited and the disbarred. It’s three suggested bucks at the gate (incredibly, and just because it’s New York, some people decline to pay), there’s food from Two Boots – that’s the Brooklyn Two Boots, not the other guys – and along with the execrable mass-market beerswill for sale there’s potable Red Hook ESB for a presentable four smacks a cup. It’s a gorgeous night.

Midway through the show, David Hidalgo looks out over the filled seats (2,000 of ‘em) and the scattered blankets on the lawn. Green lights are spilling up onto the vivid canopy of trees, there’s hardly a hint of tobacco smoke in the air (but I can smell a couple of good times from where I’m standing). “Thirty years,” he says, to no one in particular. He shakes his head and smiles. “Thirty years.”

When I first saw Los Lobos I knew only their early radio single, Will the Wolf Survive?, and caught them in the fashionable piscine wastes of Les Bains-Douches in Paris in 1984. We were togged in backpacker-chic, and management immediately tossed us out after the show for violations of style too numerous to mention. Fetching young Sally might have stayed – she was that sort of promising midwestern American Girl, the kind who captivates the European imagination and gets the francs flowing – but the vast transvestite at the door issued her opinions on my shoes, which involved a lot of hand-flapping and two very large bouncers, and that was that. No splashing in the pretty pools for us. More recently I was at the Los Lobos Sessions at West 54th taping a few years ago, in better shoes, marveling both that they were still playing and that I was still listening.

Los Lobos - How Will the Wolf Survive?How Will the Wolf Survive? (1984) is the second of thirteen Los Lobos album releases to date, and the first one I bought. In a way it’s also an unintentional indictment of the way we sell and package music. This band is extraordinary, and always has been; they are flexible, talented, passionate, empathic, deep. They are concerned with the world around them and committed to their craft; they can pander, they can prance, they can race, they can strut. They are musicians with a long strong vocabulary and a gift for dialect, and they can touch many worlds.

Unfortunately, they are not squeaky babes or washboard-abbed sloe-eyed fauns, and it’s been a hard sell to get them heard. Since they play more than one simple style, simple tastemakers can’t figure out what they smack of.

The Los Lobos faithful are legion, of course, and The Ride, their new album, pitches the band in collaboration with luminaries like Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Richard Thompson. Still, Los Lobos are more known-of than known. Each release excites the critics and froths the fans, but apart from the smash success of La Bamba – and don’t even get me started with that – the big fish at radio nod, tap, and move on without biting. It’s a damn shame.

Still and all, the bandshell show is chum and not cuisine. I don’t know if that can be avoided; on such a night in such a setting, in this city this summer, Los Lobos is the backdrop for the evening and not the glittering heart of it. Cesar is still wearing his shades these 20 years later, and that’s reassuring. But the whole set is reassuring, and I find myself wanting more edge. It’s not that the band doesn’t have edge, but after a lifetime of hacking at the underbrush there’s only so much jungle you can clear away on a sultry June night. Radio, radio, what have you done to us all? When will you give us music again?

In the half-shell scoop of the bandshell audience, dressed in a gray houndstooth suit and sporting a derby, a wasp-knotted necktie, and shindig two-tone dancing shoes, is Chuck “Raven” Hancock. We goggle at each other, amazed. One long summer in a different century we lazed through an alternate universe in Washington Square Park, circa 1977. Tall ships; Star Wars; Annie Hall. My hair was in a ponytail then, and it’s back in one now. I was 16, give or take, aimless between school years, soon to move down to the East Village, and desperate to stay out of the ancestral Upper West Side home. Chuck was a glib streak of restless creation, all energy, music, dance, twist, and backhanded style. We chased girls, or rather Chuck did; I puzzled at the mechanics of the whole thing, half afraid I might accidentally catch one. Circles, cycles, orbits.

  • Best t-shirt of the evening: Picture of a rabbi with the large drawled legend, “C’mon, Punk, Make My Shabos.”
  • Other great stuff seen in Prospect Park: Kathleen Edwards, The Shirts, Metropolis, Lambchop, the Brooklyn Philharmonic, Bang on a Can, Dave Amram.
  • If this is your first Los Lobos sighting, visit the Los Lobos fan site for more band and less Flash commerce.

About Linus

The man behind the curtain. But couldn't we get a nicer curtain?
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