In two years time Los Lobos, as a band, will be an astonishing fifty years old, with a staggering seventeen albums to their name between 1978 and now, let alone a myriad of other appearances, including dozens of cover versions and a host of tribute recordings. Few bands are as able to flit between genres so effortlessly, as their presence on projects as varied as records in praise of Fats Domino, Richard Thompson, and the Grateful Dead displays. Now, with their new release Native Sons, they’re putting their latest varied covers in one place.
Native Sons is by no means the band’s first all-covers project either, thanks to Ride This, a covers EP of seven songs in 2004, and the frankly astonishing Los Lobos Go Disney, a 2009 album of nothing but Disney soundtrack favorites, played in their inimitable East L.A. sound. Flitting between an abrasive rock music, Tex-Mex stylizations and full on conjunto Tejano, they have a massive footprint in modern roots based musics.
The theme here is Los Angeles, the L.A. music they grew up listening to, the music on the radio as they honed their trade. So we get songs by big hitters like the Beach Boys and Buffalo Springfield, alongside some of the popular Chicano fare from the barrios. Like so many releases this year, it arose out of the sense of claustrophobia inflicted by the coronavirus; unable to play, unable to tour, the band hit on the idea of a playlist of all those L.A. songs that had inspired and fed their appetite for music. Whittled down from a longlist of around 60 songs, here are the top 12, which must surely give hope for a second volume or so, or at least for a later deluxe edition.(By the way, top 12, but 13 songs on the record, the title track being a newly written original, which sums up the point and the purpose of the whole exercise.)
Los Lobos smashes the ground running with their version of the 1966 Thee Midniters song, “Love Special Delivery.” Their cover plays little with the original structure, maintaining the brass and vibrant lead bass motif, but removes the slightly anachronistic 60s production tropes, thus making it a song more than fit for its purpose: waking up the neighborhood with an opening salvo of intent. Terrific cheese-cutter Hammond too. This leads briskly into the double-Barry of “Misery”–written by Barrett Strong, with backing vocals here by old buddy of the band, Barrence Whitfield. Classic west coast Motown in the original, here it is brought into a gritty, gravelly R&B, an exquisite short burst of guitar adding a perfect touch.
A segued “Bluebird” and “For What It’s Worth” effectively reminds quite how potent were Buffalo Springfield and, in particular, these two of their more Stephen Stills-centric songs. Extending on the instrumental play between Stills and Neil Young, David Hidalgo is playing both guitar parts here, each fed through the different channels. Rather than shouting out the protest of the song, as so many other artists have done, the Wolves tone it down a tad, honoring both the original and the significance of the statements made.
The seriousness of that last track needs a lighter to follow, that provided effortlessly by the party time salsa of “Los Chucos Suaves,” a 78 rpm from 1949, coming over all early Santana. I commend playing it twice. In a row. Or more, to taste, until you are ready for the U-turn of the old Jackson Browne chestnut, “Jamaica (Say You Will),” previously covered memorably by the Byrds and by Joe Cocker. A slightly surprising song to find in this selection, but stick with it–it’s a grower.
“Never No More” is jump-jive at its best; no surprise, as it comes from the pen of Percy Mayfield, author of so many of Ray Charles’ hits. Here the band kick some sure as hell zoot, and the song struts along at a sturdy lick, in a style I would like to hear the band play a whole lot more. Again the walking bass of Conrad Lozano is wonderful, as is the period perfect saxophone of Steve Berlin. Without a regular drummer, here, and for much of the album, the drums are provided, excellently, by David Hidalgo, Jr.
“Native Son,” the only non-original, continues in a similar, if slower, bluesy vein, carrying a feel of classic Caledonian Soul Orchestra-era Van Morrison. But any reverie induced by the lyrics is soon swept aside by “Farmer John,” a song in the LL repertoire for upward of 40 years; they even released it as a single before, in 1981. Never a big song or clever song, wisely they do nothing different beyond banging it out, much as they always have.
Willie Bobo is a name revered in Latino circles, fusing jazz and soul with the rhythm to the fore. “Dichoso” is one of his moodier ballads, oozing a wistful melancholia. Cesar Rosas channels his vocal here with aplomb, his organ just the necessary embedding, amidst the evocative timbales. A slight step up on the pedal, and it is into a wondrous “Sail On Sailor,” the standout track from the Beach Boys masterpiece Holland.This is a faithful version, unsurprisingly, the band having learnt to play it courtesy Blondie Chaplin, who sang the original, when he jammed with Los Lobos. But it has just that little bit of extra grit to stamp authority on this new rendition.
In no small coup, Little Willie G is brought in to guest on “The World Is a Ghetto,” given he sang on the original, by War. Straying little from the steamy heat haze of the original, if anything, this version is sultrier still, with the brass more muted, and giving an even smoggier eyed feel. Louie Perez’s chopped wah-wah rhythm guitar is a masterclass in restraint, ahead of another blistering Hidalgo run on lead. A highlight.
What better way to follow that than by going back to where they began, as East L.A. stablemates with the raw rock’n’roll of the Blasters, Steve Berlin managing to be in both bands for a time. “Flat Top Joint,” a Dave Alvin song, is another song with a jump-jive feel, but is is given a slightly less gauche and brash feel here. Which suits it fine. As does the album closer “Where Lovers Go,” an end of the night dance-floor filler of old, couples leaning on each other, possibly as much for support as romantic intent. A hit for the Jaguars in 1965, its author was later road manager for Los Lobos, slow to reveal that when in their employ, until they learnt, and took it into their repertoire, where it has always remained. Sort of if the Shadows came from Tijuana, it is a glorious way to close this excellent and evocative record. The affection the band have for the original renditions is obvious, their interpretations befittingly honoring that love, yet with enough, just enough, of their own special sauce to make it also faithful to their own name and brand.
Native Sons Tracklisting:
- Love Special Delivery (Thee Midniters cover)
- Misery (Barrett Strong cover)
- Bluebird / For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield covers)
- Los Chucos Suaves (Lalo Guerreo y Sus Cincos Lobos cover)
- Jamaica Say You Will (Jackson Browne cover)
- Never No More (Percy Mayfield cover)
- Native Son (Los Lobos original)
- Farmer John (Don & Dewey cover)
- Dichoso (Willie Bobo cover)
- Sail On, Sailor (Beach Boys cover)
- The World Is A Ghetto (War cover)
- Flat Top Joint (Blasters cover)
- Where Lovers Go (Jaguars cover)