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Toss out the phrase “classic L.A. albums,” and you’ll probably get the same handful of responses. But one killer record that might slip through the cracks of such discussions is Los Lobos’ Kiko.
Then again, that depends on whose opinion is being solicited. Kiko never gained radio’s favor and barely dented the Billboard 200. And outsiders often dismiss Los Lobos as merely a roots-rock collective that struck commercial gold a quarter-century ago with their remake of “La Bamba” and were never heard from nationally again.
But ask the right people about “just another band from East L.A.,” and you’re bound to hear a repeated chorus: “Kiko is a masterpiece.” It was the turning point in Los Lobos’ impressive career, and hearing them play it Tuesday night at the 200-seat Clive Davis Theater in the Grammy Museum at L.A. Live was a visceral reminder of the 1992 album’s beauty, complexity, ambition — and staying power.
The show promoted the Aug. 21 releases of Shout! Factory’s Kiko 20th Anniversary Edition and the Kiko Live CD and DVD. The expanded reissue of the Grammy-nominated album includes previously unreleased tracks, and the companion set captures an unreleased 2006 performance of Kiko at the San Diego House of Blues. And the band genuinely jolted the industry-heavy crowd that also included rocker Alejandro Escovedo, who got a shout-out from the stage.
“We didn’t get a chance to rehearse too much,” singer-guitarist David Hidalgo said as the band tuned up Tuesday. “There are a few little problem children in this album.”
That hardly was apparent during the next hour-plus, though the run-through omitted a few of Kiko’s 16 tracks. The playing throughout was tight but raw; at one point, the band seemed a little unsure about what was next on the record. “Is this ‘Whiskey [Trail]?” “No, no.” “Yeah, you guys.”
Any number of the group’s grab bag of traditional and contemporary influences are blended into Kiko: blues, soul, country, rock, jazz, Tex-Mex and more. And most the album’s songs were extended Tuesday, with many featuring biting guitar solos from Hidalgo and lefty Cesar Rosas — sometimes trading off, sometimes showing off.
They and the other longtime Lobos — guitarist Louie Perez, bassist Conrad Lozano and keyboardist-saxman Steve Berlin, backed by often-beaming new drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez — locked into grooves and stayed there. There was, however, plenty of between-song tinkering with instrument, which Hidalgo blamed on “different tunings.” Rosas tried to fill time during one particularly longish break, saying, “OK, so there’s this goat going down the 5… .” The crowd chuckled, and he quickly added, “Oh wait, we don’t have any time for that.”
Despite the core players ranging from 56 to 61, the band’s musicianship remains uncanny. From the growling riff of “Wake Up Dolores” to Hidalgo’s a cappella singing to the backing track of “Angels With Dirty Faces” to the deceptive simplicity of “When the Circus Comes” and throughout, they played flawlessly.
“So, it’s been 20 years since the album came out,” he said. “That was fast, huh?” With that, Hidalgo strapped on a gold-flecked accordion, which provided the beautiful hook/riff for “Kiko and the Lavender Moon.” He sang it in that unmistakable voice — a rare blend of soulful and gorgeous.
The finale was particularly grand, as the band was joined by two percussionists and a mariachi quartet for “Rio de Tenampa.” “We’re not gonna introduce everybody,” Hidalgo said with a grin. “We just met today.”
Simply put, it was an entirely memorable performance of an entirely brilliant record. And it brought to mind a nagging question: Really, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — you can’t find a slot for Los Lobos? Borderline shameful.
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