In all the years that Los Lobos have been soundtracking people’s lives with their music, the boundary-pushing East LA rockers have never played the Rose Parade. That will change on New Year’s Day, when they perform a few songs at the 131st Rose Parade’s Grand Finale on the last float, which will be parked on Orange Grove Boulevard.
“It’ll be a first for us, for sure,” says keyboardist/saxophonist Steve Berlin (“the only non-Los Angeleno in the bunch”) during a call from Boston, the latest stop on Los Lobos’ tour promoting “Llegó Navidad,” their first Christmas album. “They approached us, we thought about it and said, yeah, why not? We’re an LA band, we should do this.
“It’ll really be interesting. I have no idea what to expect. The only parades I’ve been to have been in small towns; I’ve never been to something that the whole country, much less the whole world, is watching.”
Los Lobos will also give a full show at The Rose in Pasadena on Sunday, Dec. 29. It’s likely to feature the half dozen “Llegó Navidad” songs they’ve integrated into their show.
“I feel like the expiration date’s gonna be the day after New Year’s, so I think we’ll still be doing them,” Berlin says. “I’m gonna be sad to see them go. I really like these songs, they’re fun to play.”
One reason fans keep turning out for Lobos concerts: they have four decades worth of material and you’re never quite sure what you’ll hear, beyond a zesty mix of rock, cumbia, boleros, R&B, country, soul, Tex-Mex, maybe even some jazz. That eclecticism helped make “Llegó Navidad” 2019’s freshest-sounding holiday release. An initial list of 160 festive songs from Central, North and South America was quickly whittled down to 30 or 40, per Berlin, and from there it was a matter of balancing arrangements according to “feels and rhythms” and vocal choices.
“Very rarely when we do Lobos records do we have a choice like that; generally the writing part of a Los Lobos record doesn’t happen until we’ve actually started the record [and] we’re panicking, trying to get stuff done,” Berlin notes with a laugh. “I’ve gotta say, all things being equal, it’s a lot more interesting and fun to actually have choices and be able to pick from stuff.”
They’ve toured regularly this year, and their 2020 itinerary is already filling up. For a band that guitarist and chief lyricist Louie Pérez has described as “children of immigrants,” it’s a dark and fascinating time to be interacting with people on the road across the country.
“Everybody’s kind of torn up by what’s happening and the way things are happening,” Berlin observes. “My sense is that the healing aspect of what we do becomes more and more important. But I don’t think we’re going to stand on the sidelines as we ramp up to Election Day.
“Over the years we sort of shied away from making overt political statements and announcements just because we felt the music spoke for itself. But this election is too important. We’re going to be, hopefully as much as we can be, on our own version of the frontlines.”
Does that mean we might hear a new Los Lobos record in 2020 addressing immigration and social injustice, a la 2006’s “The Town and the City”?
“We’re talking about a new record, but it’s going to be a covers record. Actually, we’re still discussing what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it.” Time constraints imposed by the gestation period required to write “an overtly political record” present a hurdle, Berlin says. “If there was a way to do it and get it out in time I think we’d consider it, but … if it comes out on Halloween, it’s not going to help anybody.”
In the meantime, Pérez and multi-instrumentalist David Hidalgo are composing music for a developing musical about “La Bamba” Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Ritchie Valens, “Come On, Let’s Go,” and Berlin is producing new albums by soulful Austin duo the Greyhounds and quirky one-man band the Suitcase Junket. Los Lobos’ weathered road warriors are still creatively curious.
“I think who we are and what we are makes a difference to people,” Berlin says. “It’s something we get a lot — people expressing how much our music means to them. That’s always been incredibly gratifying.”
Los Lobos perform at The Rose, 245 E. Green St., Pasadena, 9 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 29; $38-$68. Doors open 6 p.m. Info: (888) 645-5006. Loslobos.org, wheremusicmeetsthesoul.com