in performance: los lobos

los lobos: cesar rosas, conrad lozano, louie perez, david hidalgo and steve berlin.

los lobos: cesar rosas, conrad lozano, louie perez, david hidalgo and steve berlin.

Catching Los Lobos on an off night is a rarity. But it initially looked as though Cincinnati would catch a glimpse of one last night when the veteran, no-frills East Los Angeles band performed at the Taft Theatre.

First of all, there was the unannounced and unexplained absence of Cesar Rosas, which meant a sizeable portion of the Lobos repertoire – including most of its Spanish-sung works – was vacated for the evening. Then there was the matter of sound – specifically, a hollow and echo-ey mix, along with frequent buzzing from guitar amps, which proved a distraction for the first half of the 95 minute performance.

But Los Lobos, even in a compromised setting, can best a performance by many rock acts. The pluses that outweighed the minuses last night included a preview of the band’s forthcoming Gates of Gold album, a sampling of older music that spanned three decades, several choice covers and, as always, highly inventive instrumental prowess.

Nearly all of those attributes came into play during the show-opening Dream in Blue, which moved from darkly textured guitar patterns from vocalist David Hidalgo into a flute solo from Steve Berlin that recalled vintage Traffic. Underscoring that inspiration was a snippet of the 1968 Steve Winwood/Traffic relic 40,000 Headmen that was inserted into the middle of the song’s lengthy and loose jam.

Even without Rosas, the repertoire shifted from the 1983 Tex Mex fiesta tune Let’s Say Goodnight (with Hidalgo on accordion) to the world-weary sway of Burn It Down from the overlooked 2010 Lobos album Tin Can Trust. The former was all roots-driven fun with broad grins plastered on the faces of bassist Conrad Lozano and touring drummer Bugs Gonzalez. The later song was stoic but soulful with sphinx-like facial expression from Hidalgo, Berlin and drummer-turned-guitarist Louie Perez.

The new music was right at home in the mix. The title tune from Gates of Gold boasted country-ish spiritual reflection set to a rugged guitar backdrop that brought early ‘70s Rolling Stones to mind. Later in the set, Made to Break Your Heart gave Hidalgo room to roam on guitar with jagged solos reminiscent of Neil Young.

There were more treats, as well, like the transformation of Kiko and the Lavender Moon into a psychedelic tango, the wigged out electric groove of Everybody Loves a Train and the pure blues majesty of the Freddie King/John Mayall/Derek and the Dominoes heartbreaker of Have You Ever Loved a Woman.

Not bad for a band on a perceived off night.

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