For some, Los Lobos is nothing more than the band that covers "La Bamba" in the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic of the same name. Were they content with such pop novelty, they might be a lot richer right now. Instead, they've established themselves as one of the country's most enduring, inventive roots-rock outfits, blending Tex-Mex, country, rock, blues, folk and traditional Mexican and Spanish music like a great, broad-rimmed social and musical vat.
Los Lobos has never been particularly interested in stardom: Formed in East Los Angeles by four childhood friends in 1973 (they later grew to a five-piece), Los Lobos followed their No. 1 hit with an album of Spanish-sung songs, 1988's El Pistolero y El Corazon. It was their second such album and it won a Grammy, but it wasn't a chart-topper.
Indeed, the past 20 years have brought more critical plaudits than paychecks for the band. Relentlessly, perhaps rebelliously, they continue to push their richly variegated sound in new directions. On 2004's 30th anniversary release, The Ride, they collaborated with Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, Mavis Staples, Tom Waits and Robert Hunter. At the height of their rock powers, they went on an acoustic tour (which came to Chapel Hill in 2005).
And they refuse to slow down or meet the flipside of maturity: Last year, they released The Town and the City, arguably their best album in 15 years. A loosely connected consideration of the Mexican-American experience, The Town and the City embraces and articulates the points of view of naturalized citizens and illegal aliens alike. Like 1992's similarly boundary-pushing release Kiko, their latest goes beyond their roots, exploring dramatic, jazzy pop in "City" and mildly experimental, atmospheric blues in "Valley." On the record, as on stage, the story sketches of singer-guitarist David Hidalgo feed into an intoxicating, overwhelming vibe, his sleek, soulful tenor meeting the smart flavor of guitarist Cesar Rosas. Beneath the bright lights, you could almost call them a rock band. But that'd be missing the point.
Los Lobos performs at the North Carolina Museum of Art Saturday, July 14, at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $9-$25.