Los Lobos wasn't above a few of the stock rock-concert cliches at the Greek Theatre on Friday, but when singer-guitarist Cesar Rojas greeted friends and relatives and declared that it's great to be home, it carried more weight than it would with most bands.
Not only is the East L. A. quintet one of the city's true musical prides and joys, but its best songs orbit around the central notion of home . To gentle, mid-tempo beats and striving, faintly melancholy melodies, their characters confront forces that box them out and keep them on the run, separated from lovers and family. Home is the refuge at the end of all this soul-testing restlessness.
That notion was reinforced by the big stage backdrop at the Greek--roughly sketched images of a house, and of children playing in front of a TV set. Those images (also the motif on the current "By the Light of the Moon" album) might be commonplace, but Los Lobos' music invests the ideas behind them with an uncommon power and resonance, rising from a determination to attain and preserve these simple, essential dreams.
That's the side of Los Lobos that came through strongest Friday in "Will the Wolf Survive," "One Time, One Night" and "Is This All There Is"--eloquent pop-rock songs propelled by David Hidalgo's rangy, sweet-and-sour, Steve Winwood-like vocals. Even though his singing was hampered by a bad throat Friday, Hidalgo rang true and soulful.
The same themes are there just as strongly, if less specifically, in the many other sides of Los Lobos that were on display at the Greek. This concert might have been just one more of the rousing, sweeping, irresistible parties Los Lobos has been delivering consistently around town since its early club days, but neither the years nor the band's increasing popularity has dulled its freshness.
Speaking of increasing popularity, one thing that the show was definitely not was "The Selling of 'La Bamba.' " Though Los Lobos' remake of Ritchie Valens' 1959 hit is heading for the top of the charts, the group saved the song for its final encore instead making it a centerpiece. And they performed only one other Valens song from their "La Bamba" film score--"Come On, Let's Go," which has been part of their repertoire for years anyway.
That kept the focus firmly on Los Lobos' own identity as a multifaceted rock band, and if one point came through, it was that the "Latino group" designation the group is saddled with is ridiculously restrictive.
True, no one else on the pop circuit can play traditional Mexican music with the flair these five bring it (who else tries?), but on Friday Los Lobos made a strong case for itself as the best blues group and the best soul band around. They were even a formidable country outfit.
When you add the quality of their pop-rock originals to that roots-consciousness, you've got an unbeatable package, and the band's stage presentation was appropriately direct, unpretentious and powerful.
Without laboring, they project a natural, engaging personality--mainly in the pairing of their two front-men. The large, gourd-faced Hidalgo has a sweet spirituality about him, and it's hard to imagine someone more guileless on a rock stage. Rojas is the goateed bulldog, and he seems more linked to the streets and the dance-halls. A great team. A great band.
The second-billed Smithereens' dense, moody guitar-based rock is miles away musically from the headliners' music, but the audience responded with surprising warmth to the New Jersey band's directness and instrumental dynamism.