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‘It’s good to be back': Los Lobos comes home to East L.A. for ‘Gates of Gold’ celebration

The site of Los Lobos’ homecoming record release party earlier this week seemed unsettling: the former Ramirez Mortuary in East Los Angeles, where a concert stage had been set up in what reportedly once was the embalming room.

But as the band has done throughout its 42-year run, Los Lobos found the silver lining in what others might perceive as a dark cloud, casting in high relief its rich back catalog and the new album “Gates of Gold,” which was released last week.

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FOR THE RECORD

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‘Saint Behind the Glass’ singer: A reference to the song ‘Saint Behind the Glass’ identified the singer as David Hidalgo. It was sung by Louie Perez.

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“This used to be a funeral home, and up until now there has only been sorrow in it,” singer-guitarist-accordionist-songwriter David Hidalgo told a crowd of a couple hundred friends, family members and radio station contest winners who’d been invited to the show.

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“So c’mon!”

Then he counted off “Saint Behind the Glass,” from the group’s watershed 1992 album “Kiko.” He was joined by his longtime band mates Cesar Rosas, Louie Perez, Conrad Lozano, Steve Berlin and latter-day drummer Bugs Gonzalez as Los Lobos brought vivid life into a space built to serve death.

“Mother don’t cry,” Hidalgo sang. “Saint behind the glass/Tells mother not to cry.”

There were still a few tears, but those were tears of joy inspired by Los Lobos festive return to its old neighborhood, where the band first came together as Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles in 1973. The band had returned at the invitation of Chuy Huerta, a community preservationist and proprietor of the nearby El Gallo Bakery, which has been serving up its signature pan dulces for more than 60 years.

“It’s good to be back,” Hidalgo said later.

It’s been five years since the band’s previous album, “Tin Can Trust,” during which the group has continued to tour relentlessly in the new reality of a music business in which participants by and large earn their living on the road, not by selling records or collecting publishing royalties on the songs they write.

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“I speak for myself, but making records is kind of the last thing I want to do,” said Rosas, largely keeper of the cumbia, R&B and blues tradition that are cornerstones of Los Lobos’ vibrantly eclectic music.

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“We don’t have time to rehearse, and we don’t have time to record,” Rosas said as all five core band members gathered around a small table upstairs a few minutes before showtime. “So it’s just painful. But we get over that initial shock and start working. We start and we get something, then make it happen.”

How they make it happen is at the heart of “Los Lobos: Dream in Blue” (University of Texas Press-Austin, $22.95), a new musical history of the band’s journey, written by veteran music journalist Chris Morris. Morris will be signing copies Oct. 8 at Book Soup in West Hollywood and Oct. 18 at La Luz de Jesus art gallery in Hollywood. The La Luz de Jesus event also will include a slide show of photographs Joel Aparicio has shot of the band over the years.

Since its release in late September, “Gates of Gold” has met with enthusiastic critical response. National Public Radio raving that it “practically bursts with the spirit of exploration that has marked Los Lobos’ best work over the years.”

Hidalgo and Perez typically provide the band’s more experimental-leaning songs, which push the group into various realms of rock, jazz and Americana while remaining  in traditional Mexican norteno and jarocho sounds.

The release party performance included a handful of numbers from the new album, including the Hidalgo-Perez title track, an exquisitely graceful look at life transitions, as well as the unexpectedly fitting rendition of Francisco Vidal’s “La Tumba Sera El Final (The Tomb will be Final)” sung by Rosas.

Shortly after the set ended, road manager Armando “Mando” Tavares told The Times, “One reason we did this was because when when we started working the album, there was a feeling that maybe this will be the last one. So we wanted to do this show here, in the old neighborhood.”

The show organizers demonstrated their appreciation for Los Lobos, mounting oversized replicas of the group’s album covers in the hallway leading to the embalming/concert space, and posting photos including one documenting the band’s 2009 visit to the White House to meet and perform for the president and first lady.

That’s one of many surreal moments the group members have experienced since their days playing block parties, weddings and even bar mitzvahs in East L.A. before connecting with a national audience. In September, Los Lobos was presented with a lifetime achievement award by the Americana Music Assn.

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“People are starting to give us these lifetime achievement awards now I guess because they figure we’re not going to go away,” Perez said. “And still there’s part of us where we look over our shoulders and wonder who they’re talking about.”

A day after the East L.A. show, Perez said that event, and a free show that band gave a few days earlier to close the season of free summer concerts in MacArthur Park, got them thinking “about rethinking what we do. Dave pointed out that there are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay $40 or $50 or $75 to come see us at the Greek Theatre. So maybe we will start doing more things like this.”

The group will, this weekend anyway, at the 2015 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the annual gathering lineup of country, bluegrass, roots music and other Americana heavyweights.

Perez says he often wonders whether the creative muse will continue to visit him, like Rosas, often experiencing fear that the well of inspiration may one day run dry.

As disconcerting as it can be not knowing whether new lyrics will ever flow again from his pen, or word processor, again, Perez said, “I hope it never gets easy.

“If there is struggle in something, if there is doubt, then that doubt kind of propels you to keep looking for things that are mysterious,” Perez said. “It keeps searching and digging and looking. It’s like you just keep swinging hammer and chisel against piece of stone until something is revealed.”

If that search ever ends, he seems to suggest, you may as well be dead.

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FROM THE ARCHIVES:

1987: The American Dream Lives on in Los Lobos

1990: Los Lobos and commercial success: Blame it on ‘La Bamba’

2012: When ‘Kiko’ shook the pop music world and it all changed for Los Lobos


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