When Los Lobos last appeared in Vermont in 2014, they were wielding acoustic guitars at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington in support of their Disconnected in New York album. In this two-hour plus performance in the cozy confines of The Rusty Nail in Stowe, on the threshold of the Labor Day weekend, this little ol’ band from east LA brought their electrics out too, and brandished them with a similar dexterity.
But then David Hidalgo and Louie Perez really had to, because their comrade, Cesar Rosas was not present for this, the band’s first show in almost a week. The sound was remarkably detailed most of the night, allowing not just Steve Berlin’s keyboards, sax and flute to appear clearly in the mix, but also, when the two guitarists utilized acoustic and electric instruments simultaneously, presenting layered audio textures comparable to Lobos in the studio.
On this night, somewhat cramped on the tiny stage, Los Lobos were not by any means the strictly disciplined artists they can be in the studio. Which isn’t to say they weren’t tight: as rudder of the five-piece ensemble, drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez made sure cold stops on “Manny’s Bones” and “Revolution” gave the proper emphasis to the songs on which they were applied. But Hidalgo’s self-deprecating intro to the title song of their forthcoming Gates of Gold was truly indicative of the reality that the band is still learning the tune, particularly hearing the brisk authority they displayed before and after this halting, tentative take of the new song.
Having gotten sufficiently loose at this point, intentionally or not, soon after some of the most extended improvisation of the night took place on “The Neighborhood.”(that is, apart from the exploratory motion of an otherwise celebratory and frenetic encore including a raucous “La Bamba” as well as, appropriately, “Mas y Mas.”) During the course of the evening, Berlin had the spotlight twice for lengthy sax solos, possibly to allow a more even share of the workload with the guitarists (Perez had a couple himself toward that same end no doubt) based on the absence of Rosas. The sum effect of which was to more clearly than usual demonstrate the versatility within this band.
Those intervals also more than amply paced this single set, the deliberate momentum of which wasn’t so apparent until perhaps the one hour mark. Without the ebullience Rosas adds to the atmosphere, the ingratiating informality of Lobos was all the more apparent and deceptive to say the least early on: long-time staples of the band’s repertoire like “Will the Wolf Survive?” were juxtaposed with selections of more recent vintage such as “Burn It Down” from 2010’s Tin Can Trust, simultaneously illustrating the continuity and the eclectic approach they bring to their well-defined style.
“Malaque” was one of the few traditional Mexican roots pieces Los Lobos offered this balmy night, rendering the contemporary likes of the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha” even more potent as the set concluded: in a year of recognition for the iconic band, this was no cliched closer, but a tribute from one great band to another. Yet, it was nevertheless somewhat disappointing this tune received the most uproarious acclamation of the night to that point: even the crowd’s response to the medley closing with Fleetwood Mac’s “Rattlesnake Shake” paled in comparison. To be fair though, this was an audience generally engaged with the band and appreciative of their musicianship and the feeling was mutual though Hidalgo, in his customarily stoic manner, wasn’t terribly effusive with such expression.
His sharp yet fluid guitar playing, effortless as it seemed, spoke volumes however, as did the assertive bass playing of the good-natured Conrad Lozano and it’s those elements of this Los Lobos show that should stand as its most vivid images. Along with a palpable air of gaiety, upstairs and down in the venerable venue, in eeping with a holiday weekend of course.