So you’re throwing a little shindig to celebrate your band’s anniversary. As the party gets under way, Richard Thompson glides in, guitar in hand. Then a battle-scarred Tom Waits slouches through the door, Elvis Costello and Dave Alvin close on his heels, while Mavis Staples and Bobby Womack saunter in a bit later. Rounding out the proceedings, in comes Latin hero Ruben Blades, Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, The Band’s Garth Hudson and Mexican-American garage-rock icon Little Willie G — all bearing musical gifts.
Then you wake up, right?
Right — unless you’re Los Lobos.
Be assured: The Ride, the band’s 12th album, is very real. Released back in May, it’s a celebration of the influential Los Angeles group’s astounding three decades together, and its list of guest artists is indeed breathtaking (see above).
The Ride (Hollywood Records) is also the band’s first self-produced album — a process that member Steve Berlin dubbed “such a luxury” during a recent phone interview from his L.A. home.
“We were able to take our time with this one,” the horn-and-keyboard man explains. “We could stop and think about each song … [and] take as long as we wanted making it better. And [we] weren’t under the pressure of having ‘X’ amount of studio time to finish the whole thing.”
Berlin has produced a string of records for other artists, ranging from Crash Test Dummies to The String Cheese Incident — but says he didn’t “bring any of those card tricks” to the table for The Ride. Instead, he reports, the production was a solid team effort.
And a real blast, to boot.
“With this record, it was like, ‘It’s our 30th anniversary, and we’re going to throw a party!’
“We had all these names up on a board and we thought none of the musicians would probably agree to the project,” Berlin continues. “But then all these amazing people did.”
Los Lobos shares a manager with Thompson, and all members knew him. But as band percussionist Louie Perez put it in a recent interview: “How cool is it, pulling up in front of [Lobos guitarist] Cesar Rosas’ house and looking in your rearview mirror and seeing Richard Thompson parking right behind you?”
Berlin and Dave Alvin cut their teeth together in the seminal punkabilly band The Blasters during the late ’70s and early ’80s, and so Alvin was a shoo-in for the project. Elvis Costello, meanwhile, has included Los Lobos’ “Matter of Time,” from their 1987 By The Light Of The Moon album, in his own set lists for years.
As for Waits, “We’ve known Tom for a long time,” says Berlin. (Band member David Hidalgo plays on Waits’ clanking Bone Machine, from 1992.)
With Womack and Staples, it was a different story entirely; band members had never met either of them.
“We just called them up and asked them if they’d be a part of it,” Berlin reveals. “And God bless ’em, they said they would.”
Los Lobos will return the favors on Aug. 3, with the release of their six-song Ride This, featuring their own takes on tunes by Costello, Waits, The Blasters, Womack, Blades and Little Willie G.
Yet despite all the high-wattage talent on The Ride, there’s still no question whose album this really is. All tunes were penned or co-written by the anniversary boys, which helped keep things squarely in Los Lobos territory, Berlin notes.
“Someone like Mavis Staples comes in and records, and you’re just blown away,” he elaborates. “You think it’s perfect. And then, once the initial buzz wears off, you’re like, ‘Wait, this sounds amazing, but it doesn’t sound like us.’
“We know what Los Lobos should sound like by now.”
Indeed: The band dates back to the early ’70s, even though it was their 1987 hit remake of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” that catapulted them briefly into the mainstream and squarely into the American consciousness. However, that almost frighteningly radio-friendly tune didn’t even begin to illustrate Los Lobos’ by-now-legendary ability to cross-pollinate genres — from roots rock to R&B, L.A. punk, blues, folk, country, and Spanish and Mexican traditional forms.
Lyrically, the band is uncanny at capturing the fractured-melting-pot dreams of America or at tossing off, with equal aplomb, a full-blown let’s-get-drunk-and-party tune. (Hidalgo and Perez are the primary songwriters.)
Yet for all The Ride‘s consistency, its sheer diversity is mind-boggling, even by Los Lobos standards.
Waits and Hidalgo co-wrote the weirdly raucous, tribal-sounding “Kitate,” which blends ska, mariachi and something strangely akin to New Orleans funeral music.
Richard Thompson lends his masterful voice and virtuoso guitar work to “The Wreck of the Carlos Rey,” a sad, lovely seafaring story-song.
Then there’s Costello’s rich acoustic version of “A Matter of Time”; pop-gospel queen Staples’ fiery turn on “Someday”; Womack’s velvet-smooth, funky take on an R&B-soaked medley that mixes his own classic “Across 110th Street” with Los Lobos’ “Wicked Rain,” from ’92 … and the list just goes on.
The band’s commitment to their own uncompromising cultural and musical identity is impressive by any measure — particularly in this world of flavor-of-the month bands (not to mention fly-by-night ones).
“We’re kind of ornery,” Berlin offers with a laugh. “We can get cranky when we feel like we’re being abused. … I feel like we’ve made enough mistakes over a 30-year career that we’ve learned a bunch. If it doesn’t feel right to us, it won’t be right.