What sound or reflection is revealed when you think of Los Lobos?
Is it the fervent roots-driven rock ‘n’ roll behind the “How Will the Wolf Survive?” album that broke the East Los Angeles band through to a national audience in 1984? Maybe it was the cover of the 1958 Latin-fortified Richie Valens hit “La Bamba” that Los Lobos made a radio staple again in 1987. Perhaps you picture the band’s love of Latin-based music, from Mexican folk tunes to fully realized cumbias and Tex Mex romps. Then again it could be the electric fare it gleefully warps with a discreet dash of psychedelia.
Truth to tell, it’s a little of all that, coupled with a band spirit that has the three-time Grammy-winning Los Lobos still running with its original membership intact and a sense of musical diplomacy that makes its myriad stylistic preferences work within one massively expansive ensemble sound.
“I’d like to think everybody feels like they have ownership and input,” said Los Lobos keyboardist and saxophonist Steve Berlin. “I know I do. That’s one way to keep things alive, where nobody gets upset about not having their voice heard. It’s always been a very collegial atmosphere. Nobody in Los Lobos gets persnickety about ownership. That’s one way to keep a band together for so long.”
Berlin is, in essence, the “new guy” in Los Lobos with an affiliation of a mere 35 years. He co-produced the band’s first two major label recordings, the 1983 EP “…And a Time to Dance” and the aforementioned “How Will the Wolf Survive?” with a then little known T Bone Burnett, becoming a full-time band member with David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano and Louie Perez in 1984.
“It was definitely an adjustment on a lot of levels,” Berlin said of joining. “I had never played any Latin music at all, so there was a little bit of a learning curve. But that was the fun part. I got to open and enter a world I knew very little of that became the story of the rest of my life.”
With the exception of a few auxiliary changes in the drum seat, which was vacated when Perez switched from percussion to guitar in the early ‘90s, the Los Lobos roster has not changed since Berlin came on board. Its music, however, has bloomed in numerous directions. While “La Bamba” may remain at the core of the band’s commercial appeal, its recording catalog has been critically lauded through the years, especially on comparatively recent albums like 2010’s “Tin Can Trust” and its most recent work, 2015’s “Gates of Gold.”
“I’m proud of everything,” Berlin said of Los Lobos’ album output. “We’ve kept a pretty high standard of quality through the years. There are always ups and downs, as there are with anything, but I feel very good about what we do. I can’t say I spend a lot of time listening to our records, but I’ll be someplace and somebody will put one on and I’ll think to myself, ‘That sounds pretty good.’”
When asked if he had a personal favorite among the recordings, Berlin cited 1996’s “Colossal Head.” It was the second of three albums co-produced in the ‘90s by Mitchell Froom and served as the band’s final release for Warner Bros. Records. Los Lobos came into recording sessions after composing an exhaustive amount of music for the soundtrack to the 1995 Robert Rodriguez film “Desperado.”
“We were empty,” Berlin said. “We didn’t really have any material because of the way Robert makes movies. For an hour-and-a-half long movie, he wants three hours of music. I’m not kidding. That’s just the way he likes to operate. He effectively sucked us dry, so we were in the recording studio with nothing. No songs. No ideas. David said, and I remember this very clearly, ‘Well, what would (blues legend) Jimmy Reed do?’ And we just kind of went from there. That whole record was about little riffs that turned into something without really thinking about it. We were responding to the moment.”
For its current tour, Los Lobos is presenting a career overview of sorts. Through the years, it has toured as either an electric unit centered largely on rock and psychedelic-leaning music or as an acoustic group with heavier focus on Latin roots inspirations. Since last fall, it has been designing concert sets that offer both.
“We still rock pretty hard when the situation demands it and keep things quiet when the situation calls for that. I think for a bunch of guys in their 60s, we do pretty well.”
If you go:
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 28
Where: Manchester Music Hall, 899 Manchester St.
Call: (859) 537-7321