"Where did it go, can't say that I know, those days of revolution?" asks Los Lobos' David Hidalgo in the opening lines of "Revolution" on the group's 1996 "Colossal Head" album.
The critically revered, globe-trotting band had its start in the East L.A. "Chicano Renaissance" of the early 1970s. Multi-instrumentalist Hidalgo and his bandmates, drummer-lyricist Louie Perez, guitarist Cesar Rosas and bassist Conrad Lozano (since joined by sax man Steve Berlin) had their fill of being in rock cover bands and instead started learning the Mexican folkloric music of their grandparents' generation, playing at community events ranging from weddings to rallies.
By the end of the decade they'd melded their rock and traditional influences into a unique blend that found acceptance in the wide-open L.A. punk scene.
"In that movement and change in the early '70s, there was a real feeling of community," Hidalgo recalls. "Then that happened again in the early '80s, with the punk and roots scenes, where the Blasters, X, the Beat Farmers and everybody were really pulling together to make something happen. 'Revolution' is about how that got lost over the years, wondering if there ever was any revolution and change, wondering where it went."
In Los Lobos' case, the revolution went right into their hearts. Good luck finding another band that does more benefits and charitable work than Lobos does, or that delivers more passion and pride through its music than the group does every time it takes the stage. On Friday, the group will perform at Chapman University's Memorial Hall to aid the Fullerton-based Integrity House, a nonprofit center that helps people with traumatic brain injuries and cognitive disabilities to reenter life's mainstream.
Along with helping people find housing, training and jobs, Integrity House helps them run a "clubhouse" which, according to the organization's director, Cathy DeMello, is "a social-vocational model, where they gain social skills, friends and abilities" in activities ranging from making their own lunches to running a used-records store.
Hidalgo, who lives now in Whittier, heard of the organization through a niece who volunteered there. He and Perez played a dance at Integrity's clubhouse, and he was moved by what he saw.
"My oldest brother suffered brain damage in a falling accident and has been in a rehabilitation hospital for the last 12 years," he said. "Whenever I've been able to bring him home, he'd start to come out of his shell more when he was around family. That's also the feeling I got from the people at Integrity House. It's a good program that more people should help and know about.
"You can overload on benefits, because once you're known for doing them, everybody approaches you. But if it's a cause that means something to one of us, the rest of the band will almost always support it. At whatever level of success we've achieved, we feel responsible to use that to help somebody else if we can."
There are those who feel Los Lobos should be due a few benefits of its own. After nearly two decades as one of the most musically challenging and rewarding bands extant, the group has precious little to show for its efforts and is even currently without a record contract. They haven't exactly courted fame: Rather than follow up their 1987 No. 1 hit movie soundtrack cover of "La Bamba" with an oldies-friendly album, they instead released the acoustic Spanish-language "La Pistola y El Corazon." They'd rather win fans on their own merits, Hidalgo said.
But band members do get frustrated when their efforts in the studio and their incessant touring don't get matched by support from their record label, which is why, Hidalgo says, they recently parted company with Warner Bros. Though he and his bandmates would prefer a level of success where they could be home with their families more, Hidalgo said, nobody needs to feel sorry for them.
"There are times when it's frustrating to work so hard with little coming from it, and we don't see how we can go on much longer, but we always do," he said. "We know now we're in for the long haul. Every time we go out, we play to more people, and they stay with us. You don't need hits on the radio to succeed. The Grateful Dead proved that."
Hidalgo is confident they'll have a label soon, and they have nearly completed a new album in hopes of releasing it early next year, along with another experimental opus from his and Perez's side project the Latin Playboys and a blues album Hidalgo recorded with onetime Canned Heat member Mike Halby.
Hidalgo also appears on the recent Ozomatli album and is on the album by Los Super Seven, a one-off supergroup including Rosas, Freddy Fender, Joe Ely, Flaco Jimenez, Rick Trevino and others, which Hidalgo jokingly refers to as "the Chicano Wilburys."
If Los Lobos finds a label that gives its new album the right support, Hidalgo hopes it might move the band up a notch, to where they'd have even more time for creative projects (the group has assayed soundtracks, children's albums and varied other pursuits). In the meantime, they're not moping. "Having to tour and play as much as we do has really loosened us up," he said. "We throw away the set list and just have a ball."
Though many of Los Lobos' songs make a social or moral point, Hidalgo says that having a ball is the band's best way of contributing to the culture.
"If you're a musician, you're an entertainer. Little Richard and Ray Charles were entertainers, and it doesn't get any better than that. You're there to perform a service for the people. As long as you can make a connection with the audience where they walk away feeling that they actually mattered to you, that they were a part of making it happen, that's what builds a feeling of community."
* Los Lobos plays Friday at 8 p.m. at Chapman University's Memorial Hall, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. $35, $50 and $100, with the latter price including a post-show party with the band. Call (714) 526-9154 for information, or Ticketmaster at (714) 740-2000.