By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
To celebrate how far they have come as a band over the last 40 years, Los Lobos went back to where they started.
Over the course of more than a dozen studio albums, the quintet from East Los Angeles has covered folk, blues, R&B, film scores, and traditional and experimental rock. For two hours on Friday night at Yardley Hall, the only English spoken came between songs, and there were no electric guitars in sight.
Instead, the set list focused on traditional Tex-Mex and Latin American songs, with a few originals tossed in for good measure. Despite their different sources, the material blended perfectly.
The songs also displayed different strengths and talents. Several showcased excellent three- and four-part harmonies. Guitarist David Hidalgo not only played violin during “El Gusto,” he also sang a lead vocal line that took him into falsetto on the chorus.
Perhaps the best singing of the night came during “Sabor a Mi.” The ballad allowed Cesar Rosas to show off a range and expression only hinted at on the band’s mainstream releases.
Taking the stage, spaced evenly in a single row across the front, Los Lobos opened with “Yo Canto,” a track from their latest album, 2010’s underrated “Tin Can Trust.” The song was typical of the night: rapid tempo, high energy and spot-on. In fact, the band slowed down only twice before pausing for a 20-minute intermission.
Behind the band rested enough guitars of different sizes and shapes to open a music store. Conrad Lozano, the only musician not to trade instruments throughout the night, played an acoustic bass so big it looked like a small rowboat slung over his shoulder with a short neck attached.
Steve Berlin was the night’s not-so-secret weapon. He didn’t play on every song, but his contributions added just the right color to the performance. He played two great soprano sax solos during “Borinquen Patria Mia” and “Bailar la Cumbia.” Berlin’s bass sax on “Chuco’s Cumbia” delivered the deep urgency that made the song hit even harder.
Several numbers were staples of Los Lobos’ earliest repertoire as a wedding and restaurant band. It wasn’t hard to imagine the band’s tip jar overflowing during the final three numbers of the night. “Volver Volver” finally got a few fans on their feet, while “Guantanamera” provided material familiar enough to sing with. Berlin also added a great flute solo on that one.
The quintet returned for a traditional reading of its biggest hit, “La Bamba.” The band has been playing this one since it hit No. 1 in 1987, but as the musicians traded verses and exchanged smiles it seemed no one, onstage or off, had gotten tired of it.
Setlist: Yo Canto, Colas, El Cascabel, La Pistola y el Corazon, Los Ojos de Pancha, El Cuchipe, Arizona Skies/Borinquen Patria Mia, Sabor a Mi, Pajarillo, El Gusto. Intermission. Los Mamonales, Cancion del Mariachi, Chuco’s Cumbia, La Feria de las Flores, Bailar la Cumbia, Mexico Americano, Ay te Dejo en San Antonio, Volver Volver, Guantanamera. Encore: La Bamba.