Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys, and Alejandro Escovedo christened the main stage of the Outside the Box festival, heating up the Boston Common on a Saturday afternoon with a spirited package of Mex-American roots rock.
Though the three bands are currently touring together, the interplay among them fed into the festival spirit of generating artistic sparks that occur in unique musical settings and partnerships.
Outside the Box’s uniqueness stems from its sheer size — a week of free music, dance, and theater performances on multiple stages in the Common and at City Hall Plaza.
Mingling with fans before his set, Escovedo said the festival was good for Boston as the city recovers from the Marathon bombings. During his show, he dedicated the ballad “Sensitive Boys” to those affected by that tragedy.
The crowd was still pretty thin for Escovedo’s opening set, but that did not deter the singer from delivering a gale-force cover of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane.”
Los Lonely Boys followed, hitting the stage earlier than planned and deploying an hour of jam-heavy blues rock that eventually lured out Los Lobos sax man Steve Berlin, then guitarist David Hidalgo and drummer Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez. The Lobos-Lonely tandem delivered a jazz-inflected version of “Friday Night,” which built a nice contrast into the set. Los Lonely Boys’ guitarist and singer Henry Garza turned most numbers into extended jams with bassist Jojo Garza, though all of the free flowing playing gathered up nicely for a finale of the band’s signature hit “Heaven.”
Los Lobos remains a vibrant and versatile live act. The acoustic beginnings from last year’s shows around these parts, for instance, were shelved and the band came out rocking with “Will the Wolf Survive?”
Hidalgo and fellow guitarists Cesar Rosas and Louie Perez crafted rich textures whether playing a folksy cumbia or a gritty blues. The band divvied up its set between popular numbers such as “The Neighborhood” and “Matter of Time” and guest shots and cover songs.
Escovedo joined Los Lobos to play “Rebel Kind,” a song from his days in the True Believers, and “Rosalie” (which Escovedo says he wrote after hearing Rosas’s song of the same name).
All of the Los Lonely Boys joined Los Lobos, turning “Don’t Worry Baby” into a sprawling roadhouse blowout. Boston blues howler Barrence Whitfield joined the band on “Georgia Slop”
Even with all of the great songs it has penned, Los Lobos still has fun digging into other artists’ bags. On Saturday, Rosas sang “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” which transitioned into Hidalgo’s take on “One Way Out.”
Los Lobos also stirred the crowd, which had swelled from the point it was at when Escovedo began the show, with the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha” and then later delivered its best-known cover, “La Bamba” (which itself contained a bit of the Rascal’s “Good Lovin’.”)
The three simpatico bands gave Outside the Box an appropriately festive start for a lengthy celebration of the arts.