Maybe I love Los Lobos because we’re from the same era, or because we grew up listening to much of the same music. Maybe it’s because we’re all Californian. Whatever the reason, the Grammy Award-winning rock band, which performs Friday at Mission Plaza in downtown San Luis Obispo, has always touched me deeply.
I first saw Los Lobos on the streets of downtown L.A. and now they’re playing on the streets of downtown SLO. I truly have come full circle.
Since 1973, Los Lobos has consisted of Louie Pérez, David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano and Steve Berlin.
Pérez, Hidalgo, Rosas and Lozano all met while they were students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles — an area that, according to the 2010 United States Census, is 97.1 percent Hispanic or Latino. (Berlin joined the group a little later, after playing with another seminal L.A. group, The Blasters.) They were friends who liked to hang out and play music.
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At the same time, I was doing much the same in San Luis Obispo, though playing music for me mostly meant listening to records.
I graduated from San Luis Obispo High School in June 1973. It would be several years before I even heard of East L.A.
After I graduated, I went to Cal Poly for a few years and then transferred to San Francisco State, majoring in art. When I was done with college, I did what many twenty-something California artists did at that time — I moved to downtown Los Angeles. Back then, artists were moving into old L.A. warehouses and converting them into studio/living spaces. It proved to be a pivotal time in my life.
Tom Bradley was mayor of Los Angeles and he had a vision for downtown. Bradley wanted to gentrify DTLA, and his vision included a festival that would close the streets around City Hall on an early autumn weekend. There would be vendors, food and lots of stages for music.
The L.A. Street Scene, as it was called, turned out to be quite a show. The music ran the gamut from Poison, those big-hair ’80s heavy metal goofs, to the queen of ’70s pop, Helen Reddy (I am woman, hear me snore). I saw both those shows, but I really didn’t like either of them.
In ’81 or ’82, the L.A. Street Scene was the first place I saw Los Lobos perform live. My life would be forever changed.
I can’t say exactly why Los Lobos’ music has resonated so deeply with me, but I’ve loved them from the get go. I love the way they can go from Spanish songs I don’t understand to rock ’n’ roll songs I can sing along to. For me, their music has always been genuine and from the heart — not forced, never compromised.
When Los Lobos released their first major studio record in 1984 — “How Will the Wolf Survive?” — it was one of the very first CDs I bought. Some of my all-time favorite songs are on that album, such as “Evangeline” and “Don’t Worry Baby;” I still get goose bumps when I hear “Will the Wolf Survive?”
By 1987, I’d moved back to San Luis Obispo, having given up on the intense/incestuous world of fine art in favor of a career in graphic design. That same year Los Lobos had a No.1 hit with “La Bamba” from the eponymous movie about Richie Valens.
I remember thinking, “Good for those guys!” and I went to see the movie just because they did the soundtrack. By then, I almost felt as if we were family.
I don’t know exactly how many times I’ve seen Los Lobos perform live — maybe a dozen or more — many times while I still lived in Los Angeles. I saw them on a free stage at the California Mid-State Fair in Paso Robles and at Live Oak Music Festival in northern Santa Barbara County, where the band rocked the place and then came back and asked the audience what we wanted to hear for an encore. They ended up playing a cover version of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” that melted my heart.
For more than 40 years, Los Lobos have delivered great music: straight from the heart, not pretentious, always well-crafted. There’s a passion in their music, often understated, that’s pure.
“The Road to Gila Bend” is a perfect example. It’s a song about a road trip that may be a road trip from hell into the desert. But there’s a quiet determination and passion that carries you forward in the dark through the dust and heat and desperation — just to lay your head in Gila Bend. Did I mention the killer guitar riffs?
I wouldn’t miss the chance to see Los Lobos perform at another street festival, this time in my own hometown. To me, those guys are familia.
6 p.m. Friday, doors open at 5 p.m.
Mission Plaza, 751 Palm St., San Luis Obispo
$25 to $33