There are a lot of reasons to love Los Lobos, who headlined yesterday's Outside the Box festival opening concert on Boston Common. Their classic, yearning, rootsy originals, for one. They opened Saturday with "Will the Wolf Survive?" - which got kind of a pro-forma run-through, as they were still getting it together - and the set also included a much better, fully invested performance of "Matter of Time," which showed David Hidalgo's keening voice still in fine form at whatever age he is now.
Los Lobos with Alejandro Escovedo on Saturday.
You can also love them for their faithfulness to the Mexican-American base of their music, from their acoustic interpretations of classic folk songs (skipped Saturday) to rockout fun like "Cumbia Raza," which they romped through. Or you can enjoy their embrace of the late '60s-early '70s rock and soul they also grew up on. On Saturday that meant performances of the Temptations' "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" and the Allman Brothers' "One Way Out," among others. They even played "La Bamba," a hit cover they've shunned for long periods.
Of all the day's crowd-participation moments, the one that seemed best-suited to the mostly white, greying audience was the call to finish the Allmans' chorus with, "might be your man, I don't know." But Los Lobos themselves are probably at their best when all the strands of their musical heritage combine, as they did here on "The Neighborhood."
Opener Alejandro Escovedo has similarly mixed musical roots although he's from Texas, not East L.A. I arrived on the Common just in time to see him close his set with a blazing version of Neil Young's "Like A Hurricane." Hidalgo introduced Escovedo as "one of my best friends" when they brought him back out during the Lobos' set. He sang the great "Rebel Kind," the best-known track by his old band True Believers, which shared many an early-80s stage with Los Lobos, and the sad ballad "Rosalie," probably not a great choice for the festival setting.
Although "Outside the Box" touts its innovative programming, this was a pre-made lineup. Los Lobos are touring with Escovedo and Los Lonely Boys, who filled the middle slot on the bill, and the mix-and-match jamming went on all afternoon. By the time the three Lonely Boys neared the end of their set, there was an equal number of Lobos on stage. And after Escovedo finished his guest spot with the Lobos, the Lonely Boys began filing back on. Normally to see "One Way Out" with twin drummers and multiple guitars, you have to actually go to an Allmans show; here I think there were nine people on stage.
One of the day's musical highlights was when Lonely Boys' guitarist Henry Garza turned a long jam around into the opening riff of the Dead's "Bertha," one of the Lobos' best and most popular covers. And as has been traditional at Los Lobos' Boston gigs for many years, the show closed with local vocal whirlwind Barrence Whitfield, another old friend, leading them in a demented version of "Georgia Slop."
And that's the thing about the Lobos. As much as I love their music, it's how they roll that I enjoy the most. All afternoon long, they seemed to be having fun. Friends for forty or more years, generous artists, unpretentious and utterly without vanity. Escovedo is a natty dressy (pipestem jeans, scarves) but the Lobos mostly dress like they're about to work on their car. They're middle aged, with extra chins and greying hair and in some cases a decent gut. Bassist Conrad Lozano put his glasses on halfway through the set, the better to see us with I guess, and he was up there in front of 10,000 or so people wearing old cargo shorts and Keen sandals, exactly like half the guys in the audience.