Beginning a concert review with the last song of the band’s set might seem counterintuitive but there’s no law that says a step-by-step chronology of any musical evening is required from this exercise. If you want play-by-play, go to an Astros game. So, we’ll start at the end of last night’s Los Lobos show at Heights Theater, with the indubitable highlight of three hours of stellar musicianship from the band and their invited guests, Nuevo. It was an extended jam of the song “The Neighborhood,” from Los Lobos’ 1990 album of the same name, a live version so thrilling it transformed the venue’s sold-out room into a block party. To sum it up, the musicians onstage made “The Neighborhood” filthy with their respective and considerable music skills.
By the time that song arrived on the night’s setlist, both the headliner and opener had prepared us for venturing into “The Neighborhood,” each song acting as a musical invite to the block party to come. You know you’re having a good time when someone you’d consider central to the party is hardly missed and last night it was Los Lobos guitarist/vocalist Cesar Rosas who was absent.
“You might have noticed that Cesar isn’t here. He got stuck somewhere,” said front man David Hidalgo by way of explanation. “On with the show.”
And then it was on with the show, with gems from throughout the band’s near 50-year history stacked like invitations to the party ahead. “Short Side of Nothing” opened the set, the first of a handful of songs from the acclaimed 1992 album Kiko. The band also drew “Dream in Blue” and “Just a Man” from that influential record, the group’s best-selling album of original songs, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
“Dream in Blue” came about midway through the set, right after the band first got the seated crowd (that’s right, Heights Theater regulars – there were fold-out chairs on the floor for last night’s event!) up and dancing to “Flat Top Joint,” a blues boogie by The Blasters featured on Native Sons, Los Lobos’ latest album. The album features covers by Los Angeles bands instrumental to Los Lobos’ own career, songs like “Misery,” penned by Don Juan Mancha and made popular by Barrett Strong, which was high up the setlist. In a recent chat with the Houston Press, saxophonist Steve Berlin discussed the record, which won the band a Grammy.
But most of the night was reserved for Los Lobos originals like “Evangeline” and “Will the Wolf Survive?”, both from the group’s debut LP, and “The Valley,” from 2006’s The Town and the City. “Dream in Blue” came after an onstage band meeting that was reminiscent of a trip to the pitcher’s mound, with band members scooching in close to Hidalgo and guitarist Louie Pérez, who were centerstage. Pérez took vocals on a couple of tunes, most notably “Rebel Kind,” a cover of the Canadian punk band, The Modernettes. He asked the crowd for a little encouragement and the crowd obliged, with Hidalgo and bassist Conrad Lozano behind him egging on the audience.
The audience was engaged but mostly quiet, maybe in awe of the musical chops they were witnessing and therefore silenced from warbling along. The first group sing-a-long was a dozen songs into the set, the tune “Come On Let’s Go,” from the La Bamba soundtrack which put Los Lobos on the musical maps of many. They shouted out “La Bamba!” like drunken party-goers interrupting the block party deejay but when the band finally obliged in the encore the crowd sounded weak when it was its turn to sing.
Maybe they were exhausted from all that time in “The Neighborhood.” The band brought Nuevo guitarist David Jimenez and keyboardist Anthony Farrell onstage for the jam, which must have lasted 10 minutes at least, and then each performer got to walk through “The Neighborhood,” roaming about on fret boards, across the ivories, over the baritone sax’s buttons. Los Lobos drummer Fredo Ortiz, the longtime Beastie Boys drummer, held down the beat and was as entertaining to watch as he was to hear. It’s hard to put into words how exhilarating this particular moment of the show was, but if Los Lobos brings “The Neighborhood” to your neighborhood, you should try to be there.
Rosas (far left) was missing from last night's block party, but the band played on.
Photo by Piero F. Giunti, courtesy of Red Light Management
The Opener: Nuevo opened the night promptly at 8 p.m. and guitarist/vocalist Dante Schwebel marveled at the rain that fell on The Heights prior to the show. He said he and bandmate Jimenez hail from South Texas – Laredo and Harlingen – and rain is scarce there. They shook some rain from the clouds with Tex-Mex rave-ups like “Let’s Have Our Fun” and excelled when their brand of “Tejano Soul” offered an occasional quiet storm, soulful grooves Schwebel said were meant to remind listeners of school dances where boys lined up on one wall and girls on the other. The songs are meant to bring them together and Nuevo did that last night, uniting us all in the music, a perfect set up for the headliner.
Personal Bias: Los Lobos deserves massive audiences in huge halls but I can’t lie, it was beautiful seeing them in the close quarters of Heights Theater with some Houston music friends in the crowd. A fellow behind me – a new friend – said he’d seen Los Lobos plenty but had never been to Heights Theater and he loved how “heyday Rockefeller’s” the vibe was. As someone who started attending concerts at that hall long ago, I had to agree. Hearing the band’s blend of rock and blues time-warped me back to those long ago nights, before I had the same tufts of gray hair I spotted on lots of audience members last night.
The Crowd: was very chatty, mostly before the show and between sets, thankfully. It seemed like everyone was talking all at once most of the night. The room was filled with “Musicheads,” as Nuevo’s Schwebel dubbed them, folks he said he was as honored to perform for as he was to perform with Los Lobos. Also, knuckleheads who wouldn’t stop shouting “La Bamba!” throughout the set.
Random Notebook Dump: Los Lobos and Nuevo are doing it again tonight in the granddaddy of Texas music venues, Gruene Hall. Road trip, anyone?
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.