Los Lobos were hot at Higher Ground December 12th. Notwithstanding guitarist/vocalist Cesar Rosas' wry observation: "…it's colder than s&*t..." out there‚ the truly great band from East L.A. demonstrated why they should be regarded as an American musical institution.
It was just about a year ago Lobos nearly tore the roof of the South Burlington venue with a potent combination of material from their (then) newly-released The Town and The City CD plus a big handful of choice selections from their thirty-four year history. The quintet bonded with their audience for over two hours‚ culminating with a ragged but right rendition of Creams' "Sunshine of Your Love" segued with The Who's "My Generation."
This year's appearance was slightly shorter and slightly less ambitious‚ but not much less satisfying. In a groove seemingly from their first note and downbeat‚ Los Lobos concentrated on bluesy vintage originals‚ healthy homage to their Mexican roots and plenty of R&B flavored numbers (including a tribute to Fats Domino plus an elegy to Ike Turner‚ who had died earlier in the day). It was not a tour de force‚ but rather an exhibition of the fact that musical transcendence‚ for both audience and performer‚ does not have to be grounded in epic improvisation or complex composition.
At least not when you display the intrinsic musicality and pure joy in playing of this band. Commenting on the recent dates opening for John Mellencamp‚ guitarist/vocalist David Hidalgo inferred how much he and his band of brothers were looking forward to taking their time onstage.
And it was more than this mountain of a man's gesture of the heart and gracious expression of gratitude to the near-capacity crowd this crisp winter night. It was laughing off his faux pas during "Whiskey Trail‚" but more important by far‚ the solemn intensity he brought to one guitar solo after another: Hidalgo may be the most musical blues guitarist of our time and his finely honed style of exquisitely intense soloing‚ as demonstrated on "I Walk Alone‚" was an increasing pleasure as the night went on.
If Hidalgo didn't take such pleasure in strapping on the accordion-equal to that demonstrated by Louie Perez as he assumed his former spot at the drums-a listener might've felt shortchanged during the segment of rootsy music from the Lobos neighborhood of East L.A. But even if bassist Conrad Lozano's rich basslines were less prominent during‚ for instance‚ "Kiko and The Lavender Moon‚" the return to electric rock‚ including young drummer Cougar Estrada's quick nimble turn in the spotlight‚ was certainly worth the wait.
Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" suits the yearning quality of Hidalgo's voice‚ and the jagged guitar in the bridge‚ initiated by he of the perpetual sunglasses Rosas‚ set the stage perfectly for a segue in an even more highly powered atmospheric cover. Hendrix's "Are You Experienced" spoke directly to the people who came out to hear Los Lobos. The uncharacteristically muddy sound in the Ballroom affected neither the performers nor their audience‚ here or anywhere else during the two-hour set.
Hot Tuna used to be a holiday tradition of sorts at Higher Ground but they did not show this year and Los Lobos seemed‚ for all intents and purposes‚ to be taking their place. It'd be great to count on seeing this group every year‚ but the fact of the matter is‚ you would never want to miss the chance to see them play.