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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Los Lobos Feb 8 at Forest Hills Fine Arts Center in Grand Rapids

In early 1980 Los Angeles-based saxophonist Steve Berlin realized he needed a new challenge. His goal: to find a band where all opinions mattered and high drama was minimal.

“At the time I was feeling like my input was valued less than a random person walking down the street,” Berlin said of the groups he played with in that day. “I was in bands where the one who wanted to scream the longest got their way.”

To be certain, a healthier work environment was in order. Berlin got word of a Latino band from East LA called Los Lobos making news. After seeing them play he took to their cultural artistry right off.

“It didn’t take a genius to see how amazing they were even then,” Berlin said. "They were playing folklorico, rock n roll, and integrating all this instrumentation. They had more in their arsenal, on balance, than but a few bands. Most bands have guitar, keyboard, and drums. They don’t come with the weaponry Los Lobos shows up with sometimes.” 

Legendary outfit Los Lobos appears Feb 8 at the Forest Hills Fine Arts Center in Grand Rapids. 

Expert musicianship with cultural uniqueness is one thing. But what sealed it for Berlin was a one person, one vote agreement among band members.

“With Lobos it’s always been a fairly democratic operation,” he said. “Everybody gets their say. If somebody has a big issue that usually means there’s something that everybody needs to look at.” 

Productivity and engagement are two primary reasons why Los Lobos remains vital today. Last year the band celebrated the twentieth anniversary of their landmark ‘Kiko’ release. To mark the occasion they performed the album in its entirety for select dates. Berlin says the notion of playing a whole album live was pretty foreign to Lobos even in 1992. But as of late playing an album in sequence has become a thing.

“It’s not so unusual now but it’s new to us,” Berlin said. “The Pixies will play an entire album in sequence. When we made Kiko I never thought about playing it live in 20 years. You weren’t thinking about the next day much less twenty years down the road.” Even so he’s proud of the way the ‘Kiko’ sounds today. “The record really holds up pretty good, I’ve got to say. It doesn’t sound dated or old in any way.”  

Last year Los Lobos opened up for the North American tour of Neil Young, reconnecting with a long time kindred spirit. “We’ve been fans of his forever,” Berlin said. “He works extremely hard, rehearsing for two hours before every show. I kind of knew that about him so I can’t say it's a revelation. But we had the chance to play with him every night, hang out, and see how he does things. The intensity with which he goes about his business is impressive.” That much could be said about Los Lobos.  

40 years of continual service is an important milestone. The instance of four decades of all-original membership in the same band is obscure. Yet the inconceivable align for Los Lobos in 2013.

Big things are in store for the group who would once load up the gear for beer and gas money. They recently recorded two nights of material at the City Winery in New York City with plans for the release of a live effort by late spring. The Lobos tours again with Young, this time Europe in June for shows with the legendary rocker. This summer also finds Lobos reunited with Los Lonely Boys for the 2013 edition of the Brotherhood Tour. Since the beginning the Lobos approach to business was different, and Steve Berlin says he’s glad about that. “It’s like a marriage,” Berlin says of his time with Los Lobos. “We achieved a level of equivalence early on that made sense for us.” 

Los Lobos, 7:30 pm, Feb 8 at the Forest Hills Fine Arts Center.

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