Los Lobos (Photo: Drew Reynolds)

When Los Lobos loaded into City Winery in Chicago back in February, it was equal parts rock show and commemoration. The East L.A. band was in town to perform and be interviewed for a special live taping of Sound Opinions, the venerable rock/talk radio show hosted by Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot. Musically the band was in fine form, chomping at cuts ranging from longtime set staples to tracks from last year’s excellent Gates Of Gold. But one of the most ear-grabbing moments of the show came not from the band, but from DeRogatis. Never one to shy away from a firm stance, DeRo resolutely proclaimed Los Lobos to be “one of the best bands in America… in American history.”

Those kind of accolades would seem to be part and parcel for a show designed to celebrate the band’s extensive history, but DeRogatis’ words are worth reading into a little bit deeper. There is no single, sweeping metric to officially earn a group the title of best band in America, but the label is typically reserved for bands of a certain level of grandeur. Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band are lionized as musical spokespeople for America’s blue-collar working class. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers similarly pull at people’s heartstrings with huge anthems of dreamers and ne’er-do-wells. In more recent years, Pearl Jam has taken populist arena rock well into the new millennium. Generally speaking, the “best band in America” tag is one afforded to those with considerable critical and—perhaps more pointedly—commercial clout.

To that end, it’s easy to overlook a band like Los Lobos on face value. Headline-grabbing superstars they’re not; but if we’re to judge the best band in America strictly in terms of body of work, Los Lobos has proven itself over the past 40-plus years to be underrated-but-well-deserving contenders for the crown. A band’s band if there ever was one, David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Conrad Lozano, Cesar Rosas, and Steve Berlin have quietly but steadily built one of the most impressive catalogs of any American rock ’n’ roll band in the last 30 years. That fact has been well noted by critics in the back pages of magazines and newspapers for years, but the extent of their work isn’t as widely acknowledged by the broader public as that of many of their peers. That’s unfortunate for a band whose rootsy-but-diverse mashup of styles and genres has seldom been less than great.

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Los Lobos’ story is one of a band whose public perception hardly does justice to its reality. Hidalgo and Pérez met as students at Garfield High School, and soon afterward began writing songs together. By 1973, the band’s core lineup of Hidalgo, Pérez, Lozano, and Rosas was in place, allowing for its first record, Sí Se Puede!, in 1976. They returned two years later with Los Lobos Del Este De Los Angeles, which continued the band’s faithful exploration of traditional Mexican music. With those records, Los Lobos wasn’t just outlining its sound, but also its work ethic. While most bands took to the clubs, the Lobos made a name for themselves in and around Los Angeles playing weddings, restaurants, and dances, all while working regular jobs.

Defined largely as Mexican-American traditionalists, Los Lobos nonetheless began to fall in with a decidedly different musical crowd by the turn of the decade. L.A.’s growing punk scene was home to many bands including The Germs, The Gun Club, and The Go-Go’s, among others. At the center of it all was Slash Records, which put out Los Lobos’ next record, 1983’s …And A Time To Dance. Produced by T-Bone Burnett and future Lobo Steve Berlin (then of Slash labelmates The Blasters), the band stepped out into the light with their own songs, which incorporated splashes of blues, soul, and early American rock ’n’ roll into its well-honed cultural sound. The record also showcased the band’s ability to handle a well-placed cover tune. Its take on “Come On Let’s Go” pulled off the neat trick of being faithful to Ritchie Valens’ original version while also sounding current. There was little telling then, but the cover was prelude to big things to come.

Despite the Slash connection, Los Lobos were never dyed-in-the-wool products of L.A. punk the way most of their contemporaries were (a fabled gig opening for Public Image Ltd in 1980 went notoriously south). Still, the label liked the roots-rock element the Lobos brought to its roster. How Will The Wolf Survive?, released in 1984, was the band’s first major musical strike outside of its native Los Angeles. Once content just to dip their toes in rock waters, Wolf gave equal room to those rock ’n’ roll influences that used to just shade in the corners. Be it the blues stomp of lead track “Don’t Worry Baby” or the swinging soul of “I Got Loaded,” the band was working its way out of a box its earliest records might have threatened to paint it in, all without abandoning the traditional music it built its name on. Wolf earned high marks from the likes of Rolling Stone and Robert Christgau, who ranked the record third behind only Purple Rain and Born In The U.S.A. on The Village Voice’s year-end Pazz & Jop list.

The critical hits kept coming for the band, which released By The Light Of The Moon in 1987. Wrapping country and Americana music into the band’s ever-expanding sonic template, it was another sizable step into rock ’n’ roll waters. But it was another Valens cover that briefly turned Los Lobos into international stars later that year. “La Bamba,” recorded for the box-office-hit film of the same name, was the kind of global smash that was as much a curse as a blessing. The song brought the band in touch with a broader cross section of fans that their previous records never reached. On the other hand, it also cast an incredibly large shadow, so much so that it continues to define the band in the minds of many to this day. It’s telling, though, that Los Lobos were almost instantly cognizant of the trappings of a huge hit single, and it was how they reacted to the overwhelming success of “La Bamba” that would come to define a new era for the band.

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Having successfully broken through the pop-music stratosphere, the band responded by retreating all the way back to tradition. The all-acoustic La Pistola Y El Corazón, released one year later in 1988, brought things back to the Sí Se Puede! days, delving deeper into the mariachi-folk sounds that informed the group’s earliest songs. If anyone thought the band was cashing in on its heritage with “La Bamba,” La Pistola Y El Corazón was resounding evidence to the contrary. More than a record, it was a statement that Los Lobos were not ones to take the easy way out on things.

“People wrote all over the place that we committed commercial suicide by putting out that record,” Pérez told the City Winery crowd during the Sound Opinions taping. “But I think for us it was just a matter of just getting back on track and using the focus we got from that huge, worldwide hit to put the spotlight onto something that really meant a lot to us, and that was the music of our heritage.”

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Los Lobos haven’t circled back to that kind of purist pursuit of traditional Mexican music since, but La Pistola Y El Corazón undoubtedly unleashed an adventurous confidence in the band. The Neighborhood, released in 1990, saw the Lobos once again embracing blues and rock ’n’ roll, but their music would take a fascinating turn for the experimental two years later on Kiko. One trait that has helped Los Lobos remain vital more than 40 years running is their ability to grow without alienating their core sound. Kiko was the band’s first stab at pushing its music forward while keeping its sense of self in tact, and it resulted in arguably the best record of its career. The album’s 16 songs were still indebted to the band’s rootsy stock-in-trade, but it was the extra studio flourishes that gave the songs an exciting new feel. The ambient textures on songs like “Wake Up Dolores” and “Kiko And The Lavender Moon” had no precedent on the band’s past records, while more straightforward, country-infused cuts like “Two Janes” sounded satisfyingly fresh thanks to a more pronounced production. Los Lobos had been crafting great songs for years. But with an added focus on using the studio as an instrument, the band was staking its claim as not only one of the best live bands in America, but also one of the most interesting.

That balance between tradition and experimentation defined Los Lobos records through the remainder of the ’90s (Colossal Head and This Time) and now well into the 2000s. At a time in their career when many of their contemporaries have resigned to living off their past successes, the Lobos made a banner year of 2015. Time has done nothing to soften the band’s chops or creativity, as evidenced on Gates Of Gold. The band’s latest has flashes of the same musical curiosity and excitement that first colored Kiko 23 years earlier. The funky, Meters-esque groove of “There I Go,” complete with Hidalgo’s distorted vocals, is the kind of cutting-edge stuff that belies the band’s 43 years. That same year, the group was also nominated for induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, further attesting to the band’s quiet but consistent excellence over the years.

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And maybe that’s what DeRogatis is speaking of when praising Los Lobos as one of America’s best musical exports. This band doesn’t tire. They continue to tour with fervor, playing festivals and small venues with the kind of hustle befitting bands not even half their age. Their new records stand on their own two legs right up alongside their past ones. While the band’s past successes have afforded it legendary status, Los Lobos still believe in earning their keep. They continue to eat, sleep, and breathe their work. They may have posited the question in earnest more than 30 years ago, but it’s clear today that these wolves aren’t just surviving. They continue to thrive. Not bad for just another band from East L.A.