Besides their 2019 Christmas album, Llego Navidad, it’s been six years since we heard from the iconic band Los Lobos who return now with Native Sons. They are indeed native sons of Los Angeles, hence the album title and an album that pays homage to L.A.’s musical heritage and their various influences. In fact, the title track is the only original. This is an album of covers from what may well be America’s best cover band, when they choose to go in this direction, as they’ve done many times during their storied career, perhaps most notably on 2004’s The Ride. Unlike that one though, this doesn’t rely on a high profile guest list and keeps the music, not surprisingly with many genres included, confined to L.A. bands that helped shape their sound. The core of Los Lobos remains intact almost 50 years on with their now almost famous tag line “Los Lobos Still Are” – David Hidalgo (vocals, guitars), Louie Perez, Jr. (vocals, guitars), Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitars, bass, Hammond B3), Conrad Lozano (vocals, bass), and Steve Berlin (saxes, midisax, keyboards). Joining them are a few from the next generation (sons of Hidalgo and Lozano) and a sprinkling of longtime cohorts.
The album comes with perhaps the most extensive liner notes they have delivered, excepting the box set. It details the background and impact of each of the 13 songs that cut such a wide swath, it’s difficult to imagine any other band pulling this off. We have rock n’ roll, R&B, surf music, soul, mariachi and musica norteña, punk rock and country, and West Coast blues. And no band sounds quite like Los Lobos so inevitably they put their own stamp on these cover tunes.
The horn blast of Berlin and guest trombonist Dannie Ramirez welcome us into the opening “Love Special Delivery” by Thee Midniters, an East L.A. garage band and one of the first Chicano rock groups to score a major USA hit. Soul man Barrence Whitfield climbs in on backing vocals for “Misery,” originally a hit by Barrett Strong, who wrote some of Motown’s biggest songs. They next turn to a medley of two songs written by Stephen Stills and done by Buffalo Springfield, flipping the order of “Bluebird” and “For What It’s Worth,” the latter of which may be the most covered song of 2021 as this writer has heard several jazz versions of the tune. Surely, it’s a sign of these times.
They usually include a Chicano song and the first one that appears is “Los Chucos Suaves,” written by Lalo Guerrero, considered “the father of Chicano Music.” “Jamaica Say You Will” is a nod to Jackson Browne (who released his own Downhill from Everywhere last week covered on these pages), delicately and masterfully sung by Hidalgo. “Never No More” is from Percy Mayfield who had moved to L.A. in 1942 where he had such hits as “Please Send Me Someone to Love” and “Hit the Road Jack” before becoming the writer for Ray Charles. “Farmer John” (admittedly never a favorite for this writer) was first made popular by The Premiers from San Gabriel. Originally it was done as a garage-rock standard penned by Don Harris and Dewey Terry and Los Lobos uses that foundation and builds it into an up-tempo R&B burner (whereas Neil Young went more in a punk direction with the tune). “Dichoso” is a Willie Bobo tune, Bobo having moved to L.A. in the early ‘70s. Cesar takes the vocal as he typically does on most the Spanish language tunes, while the band weaves in a bit of Afro-Cuban jazz.
We don’t lump The Beach Boys with Los Lobos except geographically, and most don’t realize that many Beach Boy tunes are seriously complex in terms of harmonics. No sweat. They cover “Sail On, Sailor,” which was from the album Holland, and sung by Blondie Chaplin. Another iconic L.A. band, War, has one of its biggest hits, “The World Is a Ghetto” covered as all-star guests Little Willie G. (who sung on War’s original version), Jacob G. (Willie’s son), and Barrence Whitfield all add authenticity on backing vocals for the smooth R&B. At eight and a half minutes, it is by far the disc’s longest track. Surely, the band that gave Los Lobos its first break, The Blasters, would need a spot in this repertoire. Los Lobos honors Dave Alvin’s “Flat Top Joint” with a requisite blend of rockabilly and vintage R&B, proving a showcase for Berlin’s baritone sax and the twin guitars of Hidalgo and Rosas. The closer, “Where Lovers Go,” pays homage to their Chicano heritage, reprising the 1965 instrumental hit.
Los Lobos has a busy touring schedule ahead and although one can expect to hear practically anything in Los Lobos show from The Allman Brothers to Neil Young to The Grateful Dead, they now have another crop of covers to send your way as only they can. This is a fine addition to their storied catalog and let’s hope we don’t have to wait another six years for another studio gem.
- Jim Hynes
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