Los Lobos still riding high

New on CD

Music: in concert, CDs

May 13, 2004|By Martin Bandyke | Martin Bandyke,KNIGHT RIDDER / TRIBUNE

America's premier roots rock band is celebrating its 30th anniversary with an album that could well be its very best. The Ride is both a nostalgic glance back and a bracing look ahead, featuring stunning new material and inspired versions of a handful of older songs.

What kicks the album into the stratosphere are its guests, all of whom have been important influences on Los Lobos, including Elvis Costello, Tom Waits, Ruben Blades, Bobby Womack, Richard Thompson, Mavis Staples and Dave Alvin. Working with these friends has obviously inspired Los Lobos, whose stew of rock 'n' roll, blues, R&B, folk and Latin sounds has never sounded more vital.

Formed by four East L.A. high school classmates in 1973, Los Lobos still features the exact same lineup: band leaders David Hidalgo and Cesar Rosas, who both play guitar and share lead vocals, bassist Conrad Lozano and drummer-guitarist Louie Perez. Saxophonist-keyboardist Steve Berlin joined the outfit in '83, and shortly thereafter the band scored its only Top 40 hit, a version of Ritchie Valens' "La Bamba," the title tune from the film about his life.

The band has managed to survive and thrive without significant commercial airplay since "La Bamba," and now, after decades of working together, the quintet's musical knowledge is encyclopedic, and its ability to communicate musically is virtually telepathic.

The creative peak of Los Lobos until this new recording had been Kiko, the ambitious, at times experimental, masterpiece from 1992. One of the many awesome moments on The Ride is a blistering medley of "Wicked Rain" -- a track from Kiko -- and Womack's soulful classic "Across 110th Street," sung by Womack himself in spine-tingling fashion.

The other three older Los Lobos songs re-done on The Ride are the funky "Is That All There Is," featuring vocalist Little Willie G., a member of '60s East L.A. Chicano rockers the Midniters; "Someday," given the full gospel treatment by Staples; and "Moment in Time," a stately ballad sung by Costello. "Rita" and "Charmed" are the two finest new songs on the album, the former a mid-tempo beauty with a pensive, ruminative vocal from Hidalgo; the latter a rocker snarled by Rosas and propelled by a definitive Hidalgo guitar solo.

Also stellar is British folk-rocker Thompson's lead vocal and guitar playing on the hypnotic "The Wreck of the Carlos Rey." "Kitate" has the feel of an out-of-control carnival ride, combining mariachi, ska and tons of percussion with over-the-top vocals by Martha Gonzalez of Latin-rock band Quetzal and a growling Waits.Contributions by Ruben Blades, Cafe Tacuba and Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter are also all rock solid, making the album a true rarity these days -- all killer, no filler.

Los Lobos: The Ride (Hollywood/Mammoth) ****

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