Louie Perez is a little tired. So we're cutting the co-founder of Los Lobos some slack as he tries to find his way in a recent phone interview with CityBeat.
"I'm not thinking when I'm a teenager, I hope the singer is Latino," he says, musing on his initial thoughts of forming this band 30 years ago. "You know, I just wanted it to be sung well by whomever means it. You remember punk rock's liberation-people were starting bands when they couldn't even play instruments."
I steer Perez' focus back to the de facto songwriting duties, which he usually shares with Wayfarer-shaded David Hidalgo-a guy about as chatty as a monk during Lent. "We're looking back, but moving forward," says Perez. "We have that connection to the past, we consciously pull from the past, the great musicians who came before us."
In the beginning, Los Lobos had a simple, quite dangerous idea: form a group based on blending whatever roots-rock styles suited them-not just Tex-Mex Latino or Chicano neo-folk traditions, but also the Creole-Zydeco rhythms and high and lonesome Appalachian sacred forms. Now, on their 12th album, The Ride, they've refined and distilled their visions in a more proactive attempt to fend off any accusations of Santana concept-theft.
The Ride is a celebration of 30 years-the band and some friends they've made along the away, playing Lobos songs for shits and giggles. Elvis Costello, Bobby Womack and Tom Waits are the first team on Ride, but well-known "honorary Chicanos" like guitarist Dave Alvin (The Blasters, X), organist Garth Hudson, Mavis Staples, Ruben Blades and Richard Thompson, also join in.
"It eventually came to us that this is not a tribute album by a band covering itself," laughs Perez. "Occasionally, a song pointed itself toward, say, Richard Thompson, another towards Ruben [Blades].
"What I found interesting was how no one song or cycle was overwhelmed by the [other] songs and neither did we blow away any of these very distinct and powerful artists," Perez claims.
But I've got my theory. It's Perez' turn not to get a word in edge-wise as I tell him all about it.
"It's the years and years of jamming those songs longer and longer," I offer akwardly, forgetting all the notes I'd prepared on the album. "As one musical unit with your hands in many stylistic menudos. I mean, the Latin Playboys, Hidalgo's movie soundtrack... all that stuff."
It's not a grotesquely original theory, I admit. But I posit to Berlin that The Ride 's real power-a communal ear spawned by creative longevity-sets these sessions apart from, say, Santan'a "comp" fest. It sets the Ride on joyful edge, as each musical guest loses himself in a nervous energy and enthusiastic need to impress these guys.
Or something like that.
Berlin's response? Eh, not so much.
"Everybody felt very comfortable," he explains. "We did the sessions all at Cesar's house-at home. So it really was casual. You know, one day Ruben Blades come over to the house, another day, there's Richard Thompson in the living room.
"We've really become sort of this house band for a fantasy concert in our heads of friends and heroes doing our songs with us," Perez tells me. "But this was true collaboration, this album."
"No entourages, no whirlwind PR handlers. Just a tornado of brilliant guitar, about 45 minutes total for Richard. And he thanks us profusely, and that was it."
Garth Hudson's presence on several tracks is as poignant as any: his appearance in Martin Scorcease's The Last Waltz-the farewell tour film that documented The Band-is appropriate, since it's probably the closest stylistic precursor to The Ride.
Call it blasphemy, but The Ride may actually be better.
"Really," Perez explains, impressing themselves "wasn't the point." More than once, Perez admits that he can't figure out why his band should be so fortunate.
"But if there's one thing I know," he says, "it's just amazing how easy [The Ride] came together. Even a song like "The Wreck of the Carlos Rey.' I've tried to write and record that for years. Now, to hear David sing it on the record, I can't wait to play it live.
"What a privilege. All gain with no pain whatsoever... go figure."
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"Ride This' EP: Why the wolf survives
I've always resented the Grateful Dead comparisons to Los Lobos. To me, it was as offensive as calling Spike Lee the Black Woody Allen-an artistic insult to both directors. Anyway, it seems the Others have heard my plea: Ride This is the Lobos overcoming their undeserved, though understandable patchouli-reeking following with, in my humble opinion, songs that put their legendary version of the Dead's "Bertha" to shame. Tracks included in the release (out this week) are all by artists who collaborated with Los Lobos on their latest disc: Dave Alvin's "Marie Marie," Elvis Costello's "Uncomplicated," Tom Waits' "Jockey Full of Bourbon," Bobby Womack's "More Than I Can Stand," Richard Thompson's "Shoot Out the Lights," Ruben Blades' "Patria" and Thee Midniters' "It'll Never Be Over For Me." Now, you can turn off the bootleg noodlings and put on some actual songs.