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Legends at the folk festival: Los Lobos and Keb’ Mo’

It’s only one more week until the 16th annual Four Corners Folk Festival is here, taking place Sept. 2-4, on Reservoir Hill in downtown Pagosa Springs.

This year’s festival features a powerful lineup of diverse musical talent: Natalie MacMaster, Jackie Greene, Punch Brothers, The Infamous Stringdusters, Jimmy LaFave, Caravan of Thieves, Chatham County Line, Cousin Harley, The Black Lillies, MilkDrive, Anne and Pete Sibley, Joy Kills Sorrow, SHEL and this year’s weekend headliners, Los Lobos and the Keb’ Mo’ Band. Advanced tickets may be purchased up until close of business on the day prior to the day of show. You can find more information about that at the end of this article.

More than three decades have passed since Los Lobos released their debut album, “Just Another Band from East L.A.” Since then they’ve repeatedly disproven that title—Los Lobos isn’t “just another” anything, but rather a band that has consistently evolved artistically while never losing sight of their humble roots.

For “Tin Can Trust” — Los Lobos’ first release for Shout! Factory and their first collection of new original material in four years — the venerable quintet reconnected directly with those roots by returning to East L.A. and recording at Manny’s Estudio, “in a rundown neighborhood,” says Los Lobos songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Louie Parez. “That took us out of our comfort zone and allowed us to do what we hadn’t done in quite some time: to play together in the same room, as one. This was not about putting your feet up; this was about working.”

That unified vision and strong work ethic are evident in each of the 11 tracks comprising the self-produced “Tin Can Trust,” but so is something even greater, “an intuitiveness,” says Perez, “that happens only from being in a band for so long.” A rare example of longevity in a volatile music world that stresses style over substance, Los Lobos’ lineup has remained uninterrupted since 1984; joining Perez are David Hidalgo on guitar, vocals, accordion and fiddle; Cesar Rosas on vocals and guitar; Conrad Lozano on vocals and bass and Steve Berlin on keyboards and horns.

“This is what happens when five guys create a magical sound, then stick together for 30 years to see how far it can take them,” wrote Rolling Stone, and indeed, Los Lobos is a band that continually redefines itself and expands its scope with each passing year, while never losing sight of where they came from. Through sheer camaraderie and respect for one another’s musicality, they’ve continued to explore who Los Lobos is and what they have to offer, without succumbing to the burnout that plagues so many other bands that stick it out for any considerable length of time. Their influence is vast, yet they remain humble, centered and dedicated to their craft. Each new recording they make moves Los Lobos into another new dimension while simultaneously sounding like no one else in the world but Los Lobos.

It was during their earliest years that the particular hybrid of traditional regional Mexican folk music, rock and roll, blues, Rand B, country and other genres began finding a sweet spot in the music of Los Lobos. “In 1973, when we first formed,” says Pérez, “we were four guys from East L.A. who were friends from high school who played in local rock bands. Then once we got out of high school you still had four guys who were just hanging out together. So the natural progression of things is to just start playing music again. You’d think that we’d form a rock band but then out of nowhere somebody got this idea of ‘Let’s learn a Mexican song to play for somebody’s mom for their birthday’ or something. Mexican music was largely just wallpaper for us—it was always in the background, and we never paid much attention to it. We were modern kids who listened to rock and roll. Then when we finally dug up some old records to learn a couple of songs, that was a real revelation to us that this music is actually very complicated and challenging. So at that point we were off and running.”

The band’s 1978 Spanish-language debut found only a small audience, and quality gigs were few. “We ended up doing happy hours strolling in a Mexican restaurant. That wasn’t what we had in mind,” says David Hidalgo.  By 1980, though, they began to turn up the volume, returning to rock music. At first, acceptance was evasive—at one notorious gig, Los Lobos was rejected by a hostile hometown crowd while opening for John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Ltd. Before long though, Los Lobos had begun to build an audience within L.A.’s punk and roots-rock world. An opening slot for hometown rock heroes The Blasters at the Sunset Strip’s legendary Whisky A-Go-Go in 1982 was a breakthrough, and that band’s saxophonist Steve Berlin took a special interest in Lobos, joining the group full-time for 1984’s critically acclaimed Slash Records debut, “How Will the Wolf Survive?”

As the ’80s kicked in for real, Los Lobos’ fortunes quickly turned in a positive direction, and they became one of the most highly regarded bands to emerge from the fertile L.A. scene. One of the most momentous events in Los Lobos’ history arrived in 1987, when the band was tapped to cover “La Bamba,” the Mexican folk standard that had been transformed into a rock and roll classic in 1958 when it was recorded by the ill-fated 17-year-old Ritchie Valens. Valens, the first Chicano rock star, was catapulted to legendary status the following year when he died in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and it was a natural choice that Los Lobos be asked to remake his signature hit for the forthcoming biopic of the same name. Little did anyone suspect that the remake would spring to number one on the charts.

After the success of “La Bamba” Los Lobos was now reaching a vastly larger audience. “We were opening up for bands like U2 and the Clash and traveling around the world,” says Conrad Lozano. “You’d walk into an airplane and some little kid would be singing ‘La Bamba.’ It was a great time.”

Rather than capitalize on the elevated commercial profile that “La Bamba” had given them, Los Lobos instead chose to record as a followup “La Pistola y El Corazón,” paying tribute to their acoustic Mexican acoustic music roots. The next breakthrough came in 1992 with the release of “Kiko,” an album cited by many—including all of Los Lobos—as one of the best of their career.

 Since then, on equally stunning albums such as 1996’s “Colossal Head,” 2002’s “Good Morning Aztlán” and 2006’s “The Town and the City,” Los Lobos has continued to deliver dependably solid and diverse recordings, a live show that never fails to disappoint, and just enough side trips — a Disney tribute album and a couple of live ones, solo and duet recordings (among them Hidalgo and Pérez’s ’90s diversion, Latin Playboys), Berlin’s many production and sideman gigs — to keep their creative juices flowing. Tin Can Trust pushes Los Lobos ahead a few more notches while retaining everything the band’s loyal fans have come to expect.

Los Lobos fans can expect to catch this legendary band performing on the main festival stage at 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 3.

 Keb’ Mo’ is a three–time Grammy Award winner for Best Contemporary Blues Album; and a key figure in the acclaimed 2003 PBS series Martin Scorsese Presents The Blues. But Keb’s latest release “The Reflection” is not, in essence, a blues album. In sound and spirit, it’s closer to the work of African–American “folk soul” singer/songwriters like Bill Withers, Bobby Womack, and Terry Callier.

 “The Reflection” is the first new studio album by Keb Mo since “Suitcase” in 2006. These twelve songs are the product of an important period of personal and professional growth for the artist formerly known as Kevin Moore. During that time, he started a new family; moved from Los Angeles to Nashville; built a state–of–the–art home studio, and founded his own label, Yolabelle International, distributed by Ryko and the Warner Music Group.

 Indeed, tracks like “My Shadow” and “Crush On You” would have fit neatly into Urban radio’s “Quiet Storm” format at almost any time in the past 25 years. The Reflection brings together all of this singular artist’s diverse influences — pre–disco Rand B, American folk and gospel, rock, blues, and more — in a sound that is truly and uniquely his own.

 “I worked on this record for the better part of two years,” says Keb’. “It took me some time as this was an educational process for me and my engineer John Schirmer. I didn’t want to let it go until I had something that I was proud to share with the public. It’s the culmination of all of my influences throughout my career.”

 Through all the changes of the past several years, Keb Mo found time to play a couple of hundred shows on several continents. He composed and recorded music for the acclaimed TNT series “Memphis Beat,” starring Jason Lee and Alfre Woodward. And he wrote some of the best songs of his career for “The Reflection” — material strong enough to attract such notable guests as country music superstar Vince Gill (“My Baby’s Tellin’ Lies”), nouveau–soul chanteuse India.Arie (“Crush On You”), saxophonist Dave Koz (“One Of These Nights”), and veteran session guitarist David T. Walker (“All The Way,” “The Reflection,” “The Whole Enchilada”).

 No doubt, Keb’ Mo’ and his full band will be performing new tracks from “The Reflection,” as well as some old favorites from Keb’s earlier works, during their Sunday closing set at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 4.

 The Four Corners Folk Festival uses a ticketless system, which cuts down on paper waste and protects buyers against lost or forgotten tickets. Advanced admission can only be purchased by phone or online through a simple, easy and secure process. To purchase tickets in advance up until the day before the show, or for additional information about the festival schedule, bands and lineup, visit the festival website at www.folkwest.com, or call (877) 472-4672 (locally 731-5582). A limited number of tickets will also be available at the gate on the day of show.

 FolkWest is a Colorado cultural non-profit that receives financial support from the El Pomar Foundation, La Plata Electric Roundup Foundation, and the Ballantine Family Fund.

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