by Mike Corrigan and Alan Sculley

After 25 years of recording together, Los Lobos (which performs at the Festival at Sandpoint this Saturday) seems as creatively restless and musically inspired today as when it first formed in East Los Angeles in 1974.

Saxophonist/keyboard player Steve Berlin claims that's no illusion.

"I think we're still looking for the stuff that rocks us," he says. "By no means do we feel like we've arrived anywhere. I think that's probably part of it. Another part of it might be that we still feel like we're still struggling to be heard in many respects, fighting I guess what would be called a good fight for decency, soulfulness and everything that seems to have gone away from modern music. I guess when you feel like you're in a war, or when you feel like you have an agenda, it makes a lot of other stuff easier to deal with and you fight a little harder.

"That and the fact that I think we've always been incredibly wide open to anything, any idea musically, within the band," he adds. "Everything is always a possibility."

The high level of creativity among the five members of Los Lobos -- guitarist/singer David Hidalgo, guitarist/singer Cesar Rosas, drummer/guitarist Louie Perez, bassist Conrad Lozano and Berlin (who joined in 1984) -- has been especially apparent in the albums the group has released over the past decade.

Building on a foundation of rock, blues, soul and the Mexican music that reflects the heritage of Hidalgo, Rosas, Perez and Lozano, the albums Kiko (1992), Colossal Head (1996) and The Time (1999) have combined consistently strong songwriting with adventurous song arrangements and unusual sonic flourishes.

Those albums (as well as the stellar early efforts, How Will the Wolf Survive? By the Light of the Moon and The Neighborhood) offer convincing evidence that Los Lobos is arguably the country's premier roots rock band.

The band's willingness to continue searching for new musical territory to explore is demonstrated once again in its approach to its 2002 release, Good Morning Aztlan.

Like most every Los Lobos album, the band began work on the record with no defined concept or any plan for the kind of songs it wanted to create.

"I think one of the reasons why it works best for us really is we're sort of at this stage where we're almost like kids again," Berlin says. "We sort of need to be captivated by what's going on. A lot of what captivates us, frankly, is the exploring and not having a roadmap to the destination, or not even knowing what the destination is. Just exploring the songs and seeing where they'll let us go. We always seem to operate better when there's less predetermined and we're free to make whatever we want out of what there is."

For the Good Morning Aztlan sessions, Los Lobos continued to write and record new material and shape the direction of the album literally up to the last day the band had time reserved in the studio. That was when Hidalgo showed up with the basis for the title song, a crackling rocker that is one of the disc's best songs.

"I think he had the feeling we were just one song shy," explains Berlin. "It just felt like we needed one more rock song. That just came together somewhat miraculously. There was literally no time on the clock. We shot from half court and it went in."

Berlin says a straight-forward sonic approach was the only goal the band set for Good Morning Aztlan.

"We felt like we had done relatively experimental sonically interesting records in the past. There wasn't really a lot more there that wouldn't sound like we were going in some measure backwards, or at least trying to do something we had already done. So it was something that we were pretty aware of. We don't ever want to go backwards."

Tell It Like It Is -- Over the course of four decades and two generations, the Neville Brothers have always walked it like they talked it -- with robust and satisfying New Orleans R & amp;B-style. The group's sojourn from the Big Easy's Valence Street to the stages of the world brings them this Sunday night to the intimate confines of Spokane's Met Theater.

Though they didn't officially fuse their distinctive talents and join forces under the Neville Brothers flag until 1976, the four Nevilles -- Art, Charles, Aaron and Cyril -- each found a level of success early and often in their individual careers. In the '50s, keyboardist and vocalist Art (the eldest) recorded hits like the infamous "Mardi Gras Mambo" and later co-founded the highly innovative '60s and '70s soul/funk group, the Meters. Charles was recognized as a talented saxophonist even before he joined Art in his first band, the Hawkettes. Aaron, the most recognized voice in a family of distinct voices, first struck gold in 1967 with the monster hit, "Tell It Like It Is." Percussionist/vocalist Cyril was the lead singer for the Meters during the '70s.

The Nevilles initially came together in 1975 at the behest of their uncle, George "Big Chief Jolly" Landry, to back his band, the Wild Tchoupitoulas (don't ask me to pronounce it.) They've been together ever since, creating a body of work that has garnered them -- in addition to Grammy Awards -- the love and respect of their fans and peers within and without the music world. It's a body of work that is characterized by a sense of hope and an inspired and spiritual soulfulness.

Aaron's son Ivan (also a member of the group) represents the future of the Neville musical legacy. He's worked as a keyboardist and vocalist with Bonnie Raitt, Keith Richards (as a member of the X-pensive Winos), Robbie Robertson and the Rolling Stones, among other artists. He is also an integral part of the brothers' new recording sessions currently underway at their New Orleans studio.

Publication date: 08/14/03

Judy Collins @ Bing Crosby Theater

Tue., Nov. 29, 8 p.m.
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