Sounds of Known Origin

With its Hidalgo-Pérez train song and its Rosas rain song, its tropical-style salsa and its Santana-style jam, Colossal Head had a comparable sound and feel while remaining a Los Lobos album. Though Lobos' 1996 Mercury Lounge show only took off halfway through, when Hidalgo picked up his accordion, it jacked the crowd into an elation with more head in it than the automatic ecstasy I'd encountered at the Bottom Line. And at the Guinness Fleadh last June, they lit up a soccer stadium, tempos faster and interactions edgier from salsa to polka to hard boogie. The implicit disruptions of the mid '90s seemed resolved at a higher level of commitment. And then came not only Dose but Rosas's Soul Disguise and something called Houndog (not to mention Los Lobos' deep-mixed, steady-rolling This Time, due in July).

Hidalgo— whose countless instruments, grainy tenor, and pungent guitar make him the group's supertalent— acknowledges no limits; I haven't even mentioned Los Super Seven, where he and Rosas join Joe Ely, Freddy Fender, and guess how many others in predictable pursuit of the heritage the Playboys juice up so obliquely. Houndog was cut in the home studio of a self- described Canned Heat and John Mayall veteran named Mike Halby who doesn't show up on any of either's numerous records— and whose idea of blues singing is a despondent simulation of a John Lee Hooker 45 at 33. Concerned that I'd missed the point, I made sure to catch them at South by Southwest, where Halby proved a smug Jerry Garcia look-alike and Hidalgo proved too kind a friend. But the next night Rosas, with his sunglasses after dark and his all-Chicano guitar-accordion-bass-keybs-drums band, proved a hipster motherfucker. I'd slotted his first solo album, where the nine songs outnumbered all he'd put on Los Lobos' '90s catalogue, as sour roots, rocker's revenge. But from Ike Turner's "You Got To Lose" to a "That Train Don't Stop Here" that got a no-holds-barred Hammond B-3 solo out of his brother Rudy, Rosas propelled the r&b macho he's never gotten tired of into a realm that, minus a tenor, wasn't much less vibrant than Los Lobos at Irving Plaza back in the day.

Not that I suddenly love Soul Disguise. But shored up by Los Lobos' old club-band myth, it's been revealed to me the way the EP continues to be to this day— and The Neighborhood never will be. For just this reason I was worried as well as excited when told the Playboys would tour behind Dose. Happy to accept the Playboys as an aural hologram, I wasn't terribly eager to look Mitchell Froom in the horn-rims— his studio pallor might ruin the street effect forever. So I'm relieved to report that their show at Tramps was a messy triumph. Froom ensconced behind his soundbanks and Tchad Blake wrestling with his bass didn't add any presence to what the diminutive, scholarly-looking Pérez and the large, intensely congenial Hidalgo took to the stage. But the studio guys' geekiness was part of the fun, like the Christmas lights and paper roses and Japanese lanterns, like feyly feh opener Lisa Germano wielding her violin, like the drummer topping off the second encore with a half-church, half-carnival organ tunelet. It's reasonable to accuse the records of forced casualness, but these folks hadn't practiced enough to fake it.

David Hidalgo and Lisa Germano at Tramps: a messy triumph
Pak Fung Wong
David Hidalgo and Lisa Germano at Tramps: a messy triumph

Which is hardly to say they hadn't practiced at all— decades of stagecraft obviously underlay this translation. As with Dose, there were a few aimless moments, notably the poésie concrète of "Tormenta Boulevard," and the dynamics certainly weren't as delicate as on the record. But the Playboys weren't too proud to play loud sometimes, which in this context was close enough to rocking out, and they weren't so set on product promotion that they overplayed the newer material. One couplet from Dose rang out loud without excessive amplification: "Don't go figure, it's not about hip/You won't get it, it's a Latin trip." But it was a repeated line from "Crayon Sun" that defined them and the night: "This is what I am."

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