How do you celebrate 40 years of being one of America’s great roots-music bands?
Los Lobos, the band from East Los Angeles that formed in 1973, shortly after its original members graduated from high school, performed, recorded and filmed an on-stage retrospective of music it’s made through the decades.
“Disconnected in New York City,” captured during two nights in December 2012 at the City Winery in New York City, features Los Lobos’ first in-concert recorded version of “La Bamba.”
A 1987 single from Los Lobos, “La Bamba” — originally a 1958 hit for Mexican-American rock ’n’ roll pioneer Ritchie Valens — was a No. 1 hit in the U.S. and U.K.
“Disconnected in New York City” also shows Los Lobos’ vast range. The album moves from the blues-rock of “Tin Can Trust” to the traditional “Chuco’s Cumbia” to the Latin blues of “Set Me Free Rosa Lee” to the zydeco-flavored “Gotta Let You Know.” The band’s anniversary celebration continues with touring through this year.
“It’s our 40th anniversary, so a lot of the stuff has a special resonance,” Los Lobos saxophone, percussionist, flutist and harmonica player Steve Berlin said from his home in Portland. “We’ve been doing shows — and I’m pretty sure the one we’ll do in Baton Rouge will be the same — where we’re doing acoustic refiguring of some of our stuff. And a lot of songs that we haven’t played live or don’t play often.”
Berlin isn’t an original member of Los Lobos but, having joined in 1983, he’s been with the group 31 years. He’d previously played in the Blasters, another great roots-music band from L.A.
“The first time I met Los Lobos, they opened for the Blasters,” Berlin recalled. “They blew everybody away that night. It was a legendary evening.”
Later, while Berlin was hanging out with his new friends in Los Lobos, they told him that many of their songs had saxophone parts. “You wanna learn them and come play with us?” they asked. Of course, he said yes.
A producer as well as an instrumentalist, Berlin produced a few songs for Los Lobos prior to joining the group.
“So I was sort of in the fold,” he said. “We were all known to each other. When they got their deal with Slash Records, I wasn’t really considering joining the band, but we knew we got along quite well. So we started working together with the idea that I was going to be producing the EP (1983’s “...And a Time to Dance”).
“By the time the record came out, I was in the band. They were my favorite band, so it wasn’t hard to take that call.”
In a sign of things to come, Los Lobos’ Slash debut, co-produced by Berlin and T Bone Burnett, featured Valens’ “Come on Let’s Go.” The band followed the EP with the 1984 album “How Will the Wolf Survive?” and 1987’s “By the Light of the Moon.”
The latter year was a breakout year for Los Lobos. No one was more surprised than the band itself.
Los Lobos’ recording of Valens’ biggest hit, “La Bamba,” the title song for the 1987 biopic about Valens, became an international hit.
“It was a happy accident,” Berlin said. “As we were doing it, the last thing in the world we thought was that we were making a hit record. The movie was a low-budget project with no stars about a kid who wrote 17 songs and then died in a plane crash.
“As we were working on the movie, there was a lot of discord. The script changed every day. Every scene that Ritchie Valens wasn’t in was done but they still hadn’t found a guy to play Ritchie. They searched high and low and found Lou Diamond Phillips.
“But then the movie gets released. It’s a big hit and the song is a big hit for us. Nobody expected the movie or the soundtrack to be a hit on any level. It was a miracle from beginning to end.
“We were in Europe, getting reports about the song being Top 100 and the movie being in the Top 10. We were like, ‘You guys are kidding.’ We got back to the States and, sure enough, it was actually happening.”