Recording of February 2001: El Cancionero Mas Y Mas

LOS LOBOS: El Cancionero Mas Y Mas
Warner Archives/Rhino RS 76670-2 (4 CDs). 2000. Los Lobos, Luis Torres, T Bone Burnett, Ry Cooder, Mitchell Froom, Hal Willner, others, prods.; Larry Hirsch, Tchad Blake, Bob Schaper, John Paterno, others, engs. AAD? TT: 5:01:49
Performance *****
Sonics ****

The bar had stopped selling beer at least two hours ago, and it was now probably three hours after the band should have quit playing. Yet there they were—Louis Perez, David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano, Cesar Rosas, and Steve Berlin—still onstage, feeding off a sweat-drenched, beer-soaked, dance-all-night crowd and playing their gritty fuzz-rock butt-shaker, "Don't Worry Baby," for at least the third time that night. When the woozy fans began yelling nonsensical requests like "Free Bird" and, amazingly, "The Star-Spangled Banner," Los Lobos obliged them with smokin' versions as, around the room, mouths began to drop open. Every 15 minutes or so, they even played "La Bamba," the tune that had once almost fatally circumscribed their career—this just to satisfy the inevitably drunk and heckling "La Bamba" minority that has populated their shows ever since the successful 1987 release of the Ritchie Valens biopic of the same name, on the soundtrack of which Los Lobos' version of the song figured prominently.

It was that Springsteen-like 4?-hour set at the El Casino Ballroom that convinced me that, Los Lobos is unquestionably America's best folk/rock/pop band. Superb musicians and walking musical encyclopedias who (I've heard) claim to carry around in their heads some 2000 songs, this band can literally do it all. No other single group that I know of has their range, their talent, their fire. For those who've never seen them live—and for those who just have to have every scrap of Lobos on record—this gorgeously packaged four-disc tribute to one of America's greatest musical treasures is the kind of first-class reissue they've always deserved.

Formed in East Los Angeles in the late 1970s, the original quartet (Steve Berlin joined in 1982) attached themselves to the early-'80s L.A. punk scene. There, their background of Mexican folk music and Latino rock à la Valens melded with loud guitars and the rebellious punk spirit to create a between-the-cracks musical hybrid. Los Lobos' first Hollywood gig prompted Berlin, then the Blasters' saxman, to compare (in the liner notes to this set) the band's unexpected musical impact to "finding a tribe of Indians living under a freeway underpass."

As proved by the 86-track El Cancionero Mas Y Mas, the members of Los Lobos are powerfully connected as a unit, able to shift musical gears on a dime. The band is led by two dynamic frontmen, both of whom are fine singers, and whose strengths and weaknesses as performers and as a songwriting team knit into a near-perfect whole. Cesar Rosas—he of the shades and soul patch—favors a Les Paul and rocking out; he's the more suave and politically committed, and gives by far the best interview. His partner, David Hidalgo, is one of those rare and astonishing musicians who can play anything with a string—from fiddle to Telecaster to chirango—with equal style and ease. His yearning, expressive voice, as heard in the title tune (included here) of the band's first full-length, major label album, Will the Wolf Survive, is Los Lobos' most readily identifiable feature, and probably the sweetest gumdrop in their rich candyland of talent.

Another facet of the Lobos' genius is their ability to take a tune—even well-worn classic like "La Bamba" or the Louisiana swamp-pop hit "I Got Loaded" (both included here)—and come up with a stronger, funkier, more focused version that bests the original.

But even those who knew the band from their first three, electric non-soundtrack studio records—How Will the Wolf Survive (1984), By the Light of the Moon (1987), and The Neighborhood (1990) (all on Slash/Warner Bros.)—were pleasantly shocked and surprised by the art-rock masterpiece and sonic jewel of Kiko (1992), represented here by "Dream in Blue," "That Train Don't Stop Here Anymore," "Kiko and the Lavender Moon," and four others. Dreamy, otherworldly lyrics, offbeat time signatures, and hundreds of sound textures lifted the band's music to a new level.

The experimental feel of Kiko's eccentric material was due partially to the recording method used: Forget all the usual rules of studio craft and wing it. In the excellent liner notes (three separate essays, plus a track-by-track commentary by Louie Perez), Hidalgo remembers it this way: "Nobody knew the songs; they came in and did them in one or two takes, 'cause they weren't gonna waste their time thinking, and they had to move on to the next song. So that's why they're so fresh."

Just as "La Bamba" had given Los Lobos a radio hit, Kiko suddenly broke them to the larger (and whiter) rock audience, who recognized the band's singular genius and incredible range—as proficient with the major chords and anthemic chorus of "La Bamba" as with the spooky rhythms of "Wicked Rain." Several long world tours cemented that reputation, which has continued to grow in recent years thanks to Colossal Head (1996, Warner Bros.), which contained a fast'n'loud version of "Mas Y Mas"; and This Time (2000, Hollywood), whose title cut shows the band in its loosest, funkiest mode.

While Kiko sounded uncommonly warm and well-defined for a rock record, the rest of what's here has benefited, at levels from a little to a lot, from the fresh remastering. And while the song selections on boxed sets can always be nitpicked to death, this set, which features only 11 unreleased tracks (seven of which are live cuts), is still a telling and wonderful portrait of this true musical original.—Robert Baird