"Anybody got a pick?" asked David Hidalgo as he took the stage Thursday night, and half the crowd of 60 or so dug into their pockets.
Obviously, it was a musician's crowd packing the small and stuffy rehearsal room at La Habra Music Center, a music store, for what had been billed as a guitar clinic with Hidalgo, guitarist, singer and songwriter for the acclaimed band Los Lobos.
But "guitar clinic" was really too formal a description for the affair, which unfolded as a freewheeling mix of brief question-and-answer sessions interspersed with old-fashioned jams featuring two of Hidalgo's bandmates, guitarist and singer Cesar Rosas and drummer Louie Perez, along with several members of a local group, the Delgado Brothers.
Instead of Los Lobos signature songs, Hidalgo and company opted for some old blues chestnuts and one Mexican folk tune. There was even a quick rendition of "Purple Haze"--with Hidalgo's 12-year-old son on drums and Perez's 13-year-old son doing a serviceable Hendrix turn on guitar.
Things got off to a late start after band members were delayed at the Hollywood studio where they are recording their new album, due in June. Unlike their last album, the all-acoustic, Spanish-language "La Pistola Y El Corazon," the new one will be more in keeping with the earlier "How Will the Wolf Survive?" and "By the Light of the Moon."
"It's basically a rock 'n' roll record," Hidalgo told the audience. It will, however, incorporate many of the obscure folk instruments he has picked up in his prowls of pawn shops. "Again, we're trying to mix things up," Hidalgo said, promising more of the musical diversity that has been the band's trademark. "We're just trying to keep things fun, and interesting for ourselves."
Audience questions ranged from the technical ("What kind of amps do you use?") to the personal. Several asked the members of the group, who have earned consistent critical raves and a large popular following, to share their secrets of success.
According to Perez, it has boiled down to persistence, along with some fortuitous timing. "We kind of got out there when the club scene was pretty open. Nobody was charging people to play," he said, referring to the current "pay-to-play" policy at many clubs.
Now, because of "greedy promoters," Perez continued, "there's a lot of talent out there that deserves to be seen, but there's no place for them to go."
Perez, Hidalgo and Rosas reminisced about their early days in East Los Angeles. "We used to get together at Cesar's mom's house and sit in the back yard and eat string cheese," Hidalgo recalled.
They started out as a rock band, but "in the early '70s, that started getting a little old," Hidalgo said. They started turning to acoustic folk music as a way to "fight the boredom" before reintroducing some of the electric elements in 1980.
They found a niche alongside some of the roots-rock groups that were playing in Los Angeles, including the Blasters, who helped Los Lobos connect with Slash Records. "How Will the Wolf Survive?" was released on Slash in 1984.
Los Lobos' visibility was boosted by Paul Simon's 1986 "Graceland," to which the band contributed one song. For band members, though, the experience left some less-than-pleasant memories.
"We thought we were going to record some songs that he had written," Rosas said. But the band discovered that Simon's approach was closer to, as Hidalgo described it, " 'Get some ethnic types in there and let them play, and I'll write a song over it. ' "
After three unproductive days in the studio, the band finally wrote a song on the spot, Rosas said. But when the album was released a year later, the band received no songwriting credit. "That hurt my feelings," said Rosas, who offered the story as a warning to other musicians.
Other topics discussed at the La Habra Music Center included songwriting techniques, the group's recording of the "La Bamba" soundtrack, rehearsing and the perils of the road. Hidalgo told the audience to be receptive to new forms of music and extolled the virtues of everything from country to African pop.
"So with that in mind," he said, re-slinging his guitar, "we're going to play some more blues."