The Ride, the much-anticipated new Hollywood Records / Mammoth Records CD by America's premiere roots rock band Los Lobos is well worth the wait. With an all-star cast of contributors who highlight the band’s artistic diversity and brilliant musicianship, The Ride is everything a contemporary music lover could want—and more.
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"We're all very proud of this new CD," says band member Louie Pérez “It reflects our evolution as musicians who have been playing together for a long time and have worked to absorb a lot of different musical styles and artistic ideas during a long and enjoyable musical journey… Above all, it was great to make music with some of our good friends."
The members of Los Lobos explain that the title of the CD seemed a natural way of reflecting the musical journey—the adventure—they've shared since they started 30 years ago.
"It's been one heck of a ride," says singer/guitarist David Hidalgo. "And it just gets better all the time.”
The Ride represents several milestones. Los Lobos produced themselves for the first time. The album came together in a leisurely, unhurried way. Some guest artists showed up in at Cesar Rosas’ home studio. Other times, musical tracks were ferried back and forth via express delivery service. Some of the collaborations were done face-to-face; some by correspondence.
Among those who contributed to the album were salsero legend Rubén Blades; prodigious British songwriter Elvis Costello; R&B queen Mavis Staples; pioneering British musician (and Fairport Convention founder) Richard Thompson; soul legend Bobby Womack; the inimitable Tom Waits; popular Mexico City rock band Café Tacuba; one-time Blaster Dave Alvin and East L.A. cultural icon Little Willie G, lead singer for the ‘60s Chicano rock band Thee Midnighters. The latter kicked open the doors of the music industry for many Mexican-American rockers, including the guys who would eventually form Los Lobos.
Says keyboardist/saxophonist Steve Berlin: "We're excited about this new album. It's not about sleight of hand. It's not about gimmicks. It's about real music.
With a fistful of Grammys and worldwide acclaim for their chart-topping hit "La Bamba," Los Lobos deliver an eclectic, solidly satisfying blend of styles and genres in this remarkable 13-track album, which invites the audience to hop aboard for an enthralling musical experience.
Los Lobos say making this CD was a bit like sitting around the living room with good friends, reminiscing and making music just for the pure joy of it.
"Working with all these people was great, especially Bobby Womack," says bassist Conrad Lozano. "When we got in the studio, it didn't take long for him to become one of us."
Singer/guitarist Cesar Rosas points to the contribution made by Rubén Blades. "He is just such an impressive musician and it was terrific working with him."
Tom Waits used a tape he received from Los Lobos in the mail as the foundation for the wild and raucous musical adventure "Kitate." It means "get away from me" in Spanish, but Waits purposely misspelled it. The song is neither English nor Spanish, but its own hybrid version of Spanglish with a similar mix of musical styles—including Jamaican ska, Mexican mariachi and New Orleans funeral band—that can only be described as unique.
There's a touch of the spirit of the Grateful Dead, a band Los Lobos opened for on several occasions, in the album. Many followers of the Dead have long been fans of Los Lobos. So it seemed natural for the group to bring in Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter to collaborate on a song. The result was "Hurry Tomorrow,” co-written with Rosas.
It has been a remarkable career ride for the four Chicano musicians from fabled Garfield High School in East Los Angeles: David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano, with the addition of consummate musician Steve Berlin, who joined the band as a full-time member in 1983. Los Lobos have gone from garage band to internationally acclaimed and celebrated unique purveyors of what they dub "roots music and a whole lot more," incorporating folkloric, blues, rock, R & B and Latin threads into their melting pot tapestry. As musicians, they are as stunningly accomplished as they are versatile.
Recorded primarily in Los Angeles, The Ride reveals that versatility. Los Lobos and salsero legend Rubén Blades hook up on a tropical Latin tune titled "Ya Se Va," with the Panamanian musician, composer, actor and Harvard-trained lawyer contributing an irrepressible liveliness as Los Lobos match him stride-for-stride in a pulsating rhythmic experience.
There is similar vitality—of an altogether different sort—in the blues-tinged tracks which team the band with R&B great Bobby Womack. "Wicked Rain"/"Across 110th Street" features his distinctive voice, a driving straight-outta-Harlem beat and exemplary percussive touches as well as some scintillating Berlin sax flourishes. When Womack and Cesar Rosas join to sing, "Trying to get outta the ghetto is a day-to-day fight," you feel what they are singing in your bones.
In keeping with that gritty, urban feel is the Lobos’ own "Charmed," a moody, seemingly ominous blues-rocker that grabs you by the throat and takes you for a musical ride. Sung by Cesar Rosas, it evokes vintage Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howling Wolf, all unmistakable influences on Los Lobos, but indisputably original at the same time.
Another unforgettable collaboration is “Someday,” featuring the achingly beautiful vocals of Mavis Staples, one of the pioneering performers of soul as a member of the Staples Singers. It is a perfectly executed song of longing and hope, as Staples emotes, "I know down in my heart, I will fear no more," with a prayerful hope that conveys a subtle sense of the inevitable vicissitudes of life. Simply beautiful.
The sheer joy of music-making is evident in Los Lobos' teaming with Mexico's popular Café Tacuba on a darkly surreal, yet mysteriously humorous tune titled "La Venganza de Los Pelados" ("The Revenge of the Underdogs.") The song evokes the magic realism of Latin American literature exemplified by the likes of novelists Gabriel García Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa which you have to hear to believe.
Another old friend of the band, Elvis Costello, works with Los Lobos on “Matter of Time,” a venerable early original which he’s often played in concert as one of his favorite Los Lobos songs. He plays piano and sings in a manner that punctuates the tune’s elegant simplicity, evocative of a musical haiku. Costello recorded the basic track in a church in Oslo, Norway and shipped it to East L.A., where Los Lobos put on the finishing touches.
As long-time fans of Fairport Convention, Hidalgo and Pérez were especially excited about the participation of Richard Thompson. The master guitarist’s touch is evident in "The Wreck of the Carlos Rey," a song written and performed in the classic storytelling tradition of sagas about ships lost at sea. Thompson and the band sing of a sailor who yearns for his true love as the ship goes down in a terrible storm: "Adios, querida, I've gone to stay, down in the wreck of the Carlos Rey/I sleep in a bed of salt and sand and dream sweet dreams of taking your hand." It is a performance crafted with deft and precision.
One of the more memorable tracks on The Ride is “Is That All There Is?,” featuring veteran Chicano pop singer Willie Garcia, better known known as Little Willie G when he fronted now-iconic East L.A. band Thee Midnighters back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Little Willie G and Thee Midnighters were musical gods to Mexican American kids in high school and junior high when the guys in Los Lobos were growing up.
Louie, David, Cesar and Conrad all listened to Little Willie G and Thee Midnighters with pride and admiration for a Mexican American group actually making records and having success as professional musicians, something quite rare at the time. Teaming up with Los Lobos after all these years, Willie G is in fine voice on "Is This All There Is?," his wonderfully plaintiff and soulful vocals on a song about finding hope where there appears to be nothing but despair. It’s just one of the many treasures on this new CD.
“Somewhere In Time” is a warm and affecting collaboration between Los Lobos and Dave Alvin, one of the founders of the original rockabilly-roots-blues-Cajun-rock band The Blasters, who helped bring Los Lobos from East L.A. to Hollywood by asking them to open for largely white punk-rock audiences. Singing and playing with Los Lobos is as natural as water flowing downhill for the singer-songwriter, who has forged a successful solo career. The two are a perfect complement on one another—like ham and eggs or arroz y frijoles on a somber song he, Hidalgo and Louie Pérez wrote especially for this album.
"I hear a voice singing somewhere in time, a song I knew so long ago/It takes me back to places somewhere in time, to everyone I used to know," croons Alvin in a seemingly whiskey-tinged rumble reminiscent of the late Dave Van Ronk. It resonates perfectly with this song about loneliness, isolation and a desire to reconnect with people and places that mean so much.
With a mixture of old favorites reworked with guest artists and new creations, The Ride highlights the grasp the Lobos have of all sorts of music and the pleasure they still get out of playing, 30 years later, and still looking to grow.
Concludes Louie Pérez: "It was great fun putting this particular album together. I think it represents us, and our musical journey, very well."
That long, strange trip, to paraphrase the Grateful Dead, is ready for yet another leg.
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