With no new disc to promote for this summer’s cross-country jaunt, Los Lobos has chosen to showcase the talents of David Hidalgo. With his smooth tenor and a bank of instruments — guitar, violin, accordion — Hidalgo expertly and dramatically made Saturday’s two-hour program of familiar Lobos fare explode with passionate heat.
Hidalgo’s electric guitar work, particularly on the moving “Peace in the World,” taps into a well of sources that includes blues, traditional Mexican rancheras, early ’60s pop and Southern soul. As years go by, he gets increasingly articulate on each instrument, even when performing traditional Mexican dance numbers that Los Lobos started playing at East L.A. restaurants and weddings 21 years ago.
Paying the toll for Hidalgo’s new-found prominence is guitarist Cesar Rosas, who has generally provided the band’s grittier, boogie-blues side. He’s seemingly smitten with a wah-wah tone that he used all night that rarely enhanced songs the way Hidalgo did with his imaginative and graceful improvisations. Gone, too, is the Hidalgo-Rosas interplay that has marked great Los Lobos performances, perhaps lending some credence to recent rumors that band members are at odds over the band’s direction.
The lone new tune unveiled Saturday showed little resemblance to the majority of the Lobos songbook. “Alone in the Crowd,” sung by drummer-guitarist Louie Perez, owes more to skinny-tie power pop than the blues and folk artists who inform so much of Los Lobos’ work. Again, the saving grace was an edgy guitar solo from Hidalgo.
A dozen of the 23 songs performed appear on last year’s Slash/Warners compilation, “Just Another Band From East L.A.” While the band’s most recent effort, 1992’s brilliant “Kiko,” reached new artistic heights, it also removed them further from the commercial marketplace that gave them a No. 1 hit in ’87 with “La Bamba.”
While there are no current plans for recording, the recent Hidalgo-Perez side project, Latin Playboys, takes the clanking and banging elements of “Kiko” to an extreme. It suggests that those two, more than the other band members, are responsible for the more challenging material of “Kiko” and its predecessor, “The Neighborhood.” Saturday revealed something different — that Hidalgo is the heart of this band and as he goes, so will Los Lobos.