In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
In their, yes, 40 years as a band, Los Lobos have demonstrated that not only can they play pretty much any style of music, they can play it very well. They have excelled with albums that have included blues, rock, R&B, experimental sounds, numerous styles of Mexican folk music, American folk music, Americana, and Tex-Mex, all performed and played brilliantly. They play acoustically and electrically. Their songs can be simple rockers, sinuous jams, complex sound collages, or heartbreaking stories of life on the margins. They tour regularly, with different sets each night. The core members of the band – David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Louie Pérez and Conrad Lozano – have been together from the start. Sax player Steve Berlin joined in the early 1980s, and they have had a few different drummers (though not quite to Spinal Tap levels of turnover), with the excellent Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez currently occupying the stool. Considering their longevity, the breadth of their output, and the quality of their songwriting and musicianship, they should be in contention for the mythical title of Greatest American Band, and it’s sinful that they’re not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Los Lobos are also an incredible cover band, which makes sense when you understand their many influences and their ability to handle diverse styles. Of course, their only number 1 hit, and their only other top 25 song, were covers of Ritchie Valens tunes from the La Bamba soundtrack (the one you are having trouble remembering is “Come On, Let’s Go”). Their cover of “Bertha” – often performed live, and recorded for the Grateful Dead tribute album Deadicated – rivals the original, and their live version of “What’s Goin’ On” comes perilously close to the brilliance of Marvin Gaye’s. They’ve also released an EP of covers, including songs by Richard Thompson, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, and Ruben Blades. Not to mention a full album of Disney songs.
Although their studio covers are great, it is live where their nods to their influences shine brightest, often being interpolated into long jams. At one recent show, for example, the band segued from their own spacy “Dream in Blue” into Traffic’s “40,000 Headmen,” which then morphed into a rocking “Maricela.” On their website, the band posts videos of “Classic Live” performances, some of which are covers, and if they believe that these are worth endorsing, then why shouldn’t we follow their lead? So let’s take a look at a few of these curated covers, and for lack of any other organizing principle, we’ll discuss them in the order in which they were posted.
Los Lobos – Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young cover)
It should not be a surprise that there is a kinship between Neil Young and Los Lobos, considering their shared love of a broad spectrum of American musical styles and their commitment to social causes. They have toured together, and Los Lobos often has covered Young’s songs in concert. The very first “Classics” post focused on this song from 1969’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere, the first Neil Young album to feature the crunch of Crazy Horse. Young wrote it, as well as “Cowgirl In The Sand” and “Down By The River,” while laid up and delirious with the flu, a feat of concentrated brilliance that may only be rivaled by Willie Nelson’s composing “Crazy,” “Night Life,” and “Funny How Time Slips Away” during a single road trip. Here’s a fairly faithful cover from 2007, featuring David Hidalgo’s high vocals over the lower harmonies of Cesar Rosas and Louie Pérez, with Pérez taking the guitar solo.
The band also posted a version of the song with Young from the 2005 Bridge School Concert. Here, Young’s vocals join the mix, and Pérez appropriately defers to Young for an acoustic guitar solo. As a bonus, the band has also posted a searing version of Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” performed by Hidalgo and Alejandro Escovedo.
Los Lobos w/ Jerry Garcia – Born on the Bayou/Suzie Q (Creedence Clearwater Revival cover)
Los Lobos toured with the Grateful Dead in the 1980s and 1990s, in another pairing of kindred spirits. Jerry Garcia was a big fan of the band, and, as noted above, Los Lobos has covered the Dead’s “Bertha,” as well as “West L.A. Fadeaway.” From a show in 1989 comes this medley of two great Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, with Garcia adding some stellar guitar. CCR’s John Fogerty was no fan of the Dead (on following them at Woodstock: “[They] put half a million people to sleep and I had to go out and try to wake them up again”), but maybe, just maybe, if he listened to this, he might forgive and forget.
David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas – Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix cover)
This version of the Jimi Hendrix classic “Little Wing” would have fit easily into our Five Good Covers article about the song. Here it’s sung by Rosas, but both he and Hidalgo get to show off their guitar chops. It was recorded in Montreal in 2010, when they were part of the Experience Hendrix Tribute Tour, a periodically revived event that continues to keep Hendrix’s music alive.
Hendrix was another major influence on Los Lobos, who have often covered his music, including this version of “Hey Joe” (not a Hendrix original, but forever identified with him) with Los Lonely Boys, and this version of “Purple Haze” from 2009, featuring guitarist Thea Roggenbuck, who is 9 or 10 years old, and therefore will likely make you feel bad about yourself.
Los Lobos w/ Manuel Ramirez – Have You Ever Loved A Woman (Freddie King cover)
There can be no question that the blues influenced Los Lobos, and this cover of Freddie King’s “Have You Ever Loved A Woman” demonstrates their facility in the genre. Although this song was written and originally released by King, known as “The Texas Cannonball,” it is probably best known from the numerous versions released and performed by Eric Clapton, who was a champion of King’s. This version, shot mostly from the unusual behind-the-band vantage point, burns slowly but powerfully, and features strong guitar playing and fine tenor sax from guest Manuel Ramirez, who never played for the Boston Red Sox.
Los Lobos w/ Dwayne Verheyden – Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio (Santiago Jiménez cover)
One thing that differentiates Los Lobos from many other American bands is the influence of traditional Mexican and Tex-Mex music on their sound. Many of their albums have songs sung in Spanish, both originals and covers, and their not-quite-debut EP … And A Time To Dance included a cover of “Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio,” made famous by accordion player Flaco Jiménez, but written and first performed by his father, Santiago Jiménez, Sr. Normally Hidalgo plays the accordion in concert, but in this live version, recorded in 2013 at the Pachanga Latino Festival, the band is joined by Dutch accordion virtuoso and fan of Flaco Jiménez, who tears it up, because why shouldn’t a guy from southern Holland be a great Tex-Mex squeeze box player?
Learn más y más about Los Lobos aquí, and their most recent live album, Disconnected in New York, featuring a few covers, is available on iTunes and Amazon. Also, read Nick Hornby’s review of their El Cancionero box set.