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Recession Blues: Los Lobos at Annapolis’ Rams Head Tavern, Aug. 9

August 11, 2010

The brand new Los Lobos album, Tin Can Trust, is a recession record, a reflection of an America learning to get by with less. When the East Los Angeles sextet played the album’s title track at the Rams Head Tavern Monday night, lead singer David Hidalgo needed the lyrics on a stand because the song was so new. But with the band’s lyricist Louie Perez playing rhythm guitar next to him, Hidalgo barely glanced at the sheet as he described the life of a laid-off worker collecting empty bottles in “a dime-store shirt” with a vocal full of simmering stoicism and telling pauses. When the song’s protagonist told his wife that he couldn’t buy her golden rings but only give her love, that love took the form of a tuneful, sweaty guitar solo from Hidalgo’s gold Les Paul.

Before the night was over, Los Lobos would play six of the 11 songs from the new disc: “Tin Can Trust”; the brooding “Burn It Down,” which wrestled with the temptations of violence; the percolating “On Main Street,” which celebrated the street life of the old neighborhood; the bubbly cumbia “Yo Canto,” which Cesar Rosas sang in Spanish; the aching “Jupiter or the Moon,” which yearned for elusive change; and the Latinized blues “West L.A. Fadeaway,” the old Grateful Dead number. “Tin Can Trust,” “Yo Canto” and “Jupiter or the Moon” are likely to stay in the band’s set list for years to come.

And that’s why Los Lobos remains one of the world’s most important rock ‘n’ roll bands, even if they are reduced to playing a 300-seat club in Annapolis. Not only do they have a terrific back catalog—Monday they performed “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Emily,” and “Evangeline,” and left the requests for many more unsatisfied—but they also continue to create important new songs. Moreover, they are playing better than they ever have, especially now that Perez, an extraordinary lyricist but just an OK drummer, has moved to rhythm guitar. In the small confines of the Rams Head Tavern, it was easier to appreciate just how good bassist Conrad Lozano and new drummer Cougar Estrada are, and how their muscular syncopation stokes everything else that happens on stage.

The combination of those beats and Hidalgo’s road-weary voice shifted the set list in Rosas’s direction, and the bulbous guitarist in the blackened shades, black shirt, and tuft of chin hair sang no less than eight songs in Spanish, most of them rollicking cumbias that had most of the audience squirming in their chairs or jumping out of them to dance in the aisles. It was the perfect antidote to the recession blues.

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