The members of Mexican-American rock band Los Lobos know a thing or two about touring. Formed 45 years ago, this five-man group has been to seemingly every city with a performing arts center – except Cheyenne.
That is, until Oct. 13 when they’ll step onto the Cheyenne Civic Center stage for the first time.
“We’re really excited,” said band saxophonist Steve Berlin. “There aren’t a lot of places left that we haven’t been … this is new for us.”
Cheyenne is also one of the first places the band will play since dropping its latest album, “Llegó Navidad,” on Oct. 4. Berlin said not to expect to hear much of the new album, however, because it’s a Christmas record that doesn’t quite feel right to play this time of year.
“I know I get upset when I see Christmas stuff around Halloween,” he said with a laugh.
“Llegó Navidad” is the group’s first holiday album, and it was also the fastest record the group ever recorded. Berlin said it was an interesting process because normally the band would start talking about a new album a year in advance of stepping into the recording booth, but this time the offer came in from the label and the musicians were told if they could get it done by the middle of July, they could release it the same year in time for the holidays.
The whole process was only two months long, and Los Lobos spent just two weeks recording. This was made easier with the help of friends, Berlin said, one of which is a Latin DJ who does a Christmas gig every year and another who collects Latin Christmas music. Between the two of them, the band found itself with around 150 songs to dive into when picking for the album.
“We got to choose what we liked,” he said. “It was fun – it was a spelunking trip nonetheless.”
As for touring, that process has remained mostly the same since the band first hit the road several decades ago: four or five out-of-town shows then back home for a couple days before leaving again.
“When you think of touring bands, people are out for a long time on a bus and we very rarely do that – rarely extended tours,” Berlin said. “The longest we’ve ever done was roughly a month … We’ve never gone long enough to drive ourselves insane, which is really helpful.”
It’s hard being away from their families, he said, so getting the chance to step away from it all and unwind at home is much needed. Berlin added that he’s also appalled by how often the travel industry seems to abuse its customers lately, so he’s always grateful to not have to deal with travel logistics during his time off.
Although it’s not always an easy way of life, Berlin said he and his bandmates are well aware of how lucky they are to travel the country doing what they love.
“I’m fully cognizant that 99% of the world would change places with me,” Berlin said. “We’re lucky – we managed to find a way to be on the road all the time and not burn anybody out.”
For Berlin, one of the beauties of touring is getting to experience so many crowds in such a short time. He’s always surprised by how different every audience is, and it’s evident pretty early on in what kind of vibe the crowd is putting out.
He’s also surprised by how different audiences in the same metro area can be. Most recently the band played five shows within an hour and a half of downtown Seattle, Berlin said, yet the look and feel of every show was unique.
One reason for this is that the show that Los Lobos is currently touring is essentially two concerts in one. The first half is acoustic and the second half is electric, so sometimes the vibe of the audiences drastically changes in the middle of the show.
“Last night they were really into the acoustic and then when we plugged in, it got loud and I think we lost a few people,” he said. “I would imagine they’re not really used to loud rock ‘n’ roll, which I understand.”
It’s been fascinating seeing how different cities seem to appreciate different aspects of the concert, Berlin said, and being able to offer a varied show that caters to several tastes is really exciting as a musician.
But what’s kept it exciting for 45 years?
“I think a big part of it is the people we are,” Berlin said. “We’re people all on their first marriages – we’re not people trying to get a better deal or thinking there is something better out there. We’re not restless and there is a lot of freedom within the band to do other stuff.”
That freedom seems to be the glue that’s kept Los Lobos together for so long. Berlin said he produces records on the side and a few of his bandmates have put out their own solo records, so he believes working in an environment where that kind of ambition is encouraged rather than discouraged is a key ingredient to success.
The musicians are also close enough, he added, that they don’t need a set list anymore. Like loved ones can seemingly read each other’s minds, the members get a sense of the next thing a bandmate is going to play before he plays it. So, every concert experience has an improvised element to it.
“We just feel it out in the moment and that’s a good way to keep our own interest level up,” he said. “A little randomness helps things.”
The band is also successful, he said, because it’s managed to grow and adapt to the changing world around it – particularly when it comes to marketing and selling music. The digital landscape has completely changed the music industry, so though the band still puts out physical CDs, it’s no longer the main priority.
“The touring part and how we interact with our fans and various social media becomes way more important than a physical product in a store,” Berlin said. “We make CDs but to a large extent they’re superfluous. They’re a cute souvenir.”