Los Lobos cooks with many flavors. The band spent more than a decade logging local-hero cred in and around Los Angeles before its commercial breakthrough in the mid-1980s, while absorbing bits and pieces of musical influence, from straight-up folk to blues to Tejano music’s mix of Mexican and Texan rural styles.
The popular success of the film soundtrack “La Bamba,” to which it contributed eight winningly poppy covers, introduced Los Lobos to its widest audience. But its trajectory, both commercial and artistic, continues to dart left and right. Even its more mainstream gestures bear a distinct mark; a 2006 collection of Disney songs opens with a Spanish-language romp through “Heigh-Ho.”
“For me, that’s always been the secret ingredient. We aren’t just whatever you might think we are. We can take off in any one of a number of directions and do it wholeheartedly — which I’m sure lots of bands can do, but not a lot of bands can do it covering as much cultural ground as we do,” observes saxophonist/keyboardist Steve Berlin. “I just don’t think there are any blues bands that can pull off a two-hour Latin folkloric show. Although I’d love to seem them try — that would be awesome. Imagine, like, Buddy Guy playing that folkloric music. That’d be great.”
It might be that mix of spices that makes Los Lobos an apt pick for the Outside the Box Festival, which offers a hearty stew of music, theater, dance, and plenty of offbeat entertainments from Saturday through July 21, at temporary venues on Boston Common and City Hall Plaza. (Lobos plays Saturday afternoon on the Common.) Other bands
include Buffalo Tom, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Ricky Skaggs, the Lemonheads, and both Los Lonely Boys and Alejandro Escovedo, who are joining Los Lobos on its current tour.
The festival is set to offer a platform for other performers, like students at Boston Ballet’s school, to meet new audiences. These dancers will display a mix of ethnic styles from around the world. “One of our goals to bring our company into the future is to broaden our audiences,’’ observes Margaret Tracey, director of the school. “So to participate in a festival like this is very exciting for us as an organization, because we’re reaching an audience that we normally might not reach.”
With the experience Los Lobos has logged, it’s ready for just about any audience. The band’s versatility and general aversion to show business polish lends a degree of unpredictability to any show. For a festival set like Saturday’s, in front of some fans who may have just wandered over from an experimental puppet show or the kids’ activity area, Los Lobos is ready to be flexible.
“It’s not like we’re doing a set list every night, so we try to adapt to the setting and what we perceive to be the crowd’s sensibilities. If it’s a jam crowd we’ll definitely stretch out. At some of these free city festivals it’s like a family day, so we assume they’re here to hear ‘La Bamba,’ ” Berlin says. “We’re entertainers. We don’t have an agenda we’re trying to enforce. We want people to walk away happy.”
Berlin joined Los Lobos in 1984, and the core lineup of him and David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Cesar Rosas, and Conrad Lozano remains intact. Drummer Enrique Gonzalez has since joined the fold, finally giving Berlin a little relative seniority.
Were there any initiation rites for Gonzalez?
“It’s not a hazing but he has had to learn to eat five meals a day, like we do. It’s the Los Lobos rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. That’s how we keep ourselves in fighting trim,” Berlin quips dryly.
Alongside its omnivorous taste for musical flavor, the band’s rediscovery and reinterpretation of its own back catalog adds to its idiosyncratic evolution.
Its next album will be a live recording from an acoustic tour last year; unlike previous acoustic efforts, it featured revamped versions of Lobos classics alongside the more expected, revved-up folk numbers. The process popped a couple of chestnuts, like “Set Me Free (Rosa Lee)” and “Tears of God,” back into the repertoire after long absences, Berlin reports. It was an unexpected side effect.
“We don’t ever think about what the legacy might be,” he sums up. “We just go.”