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Music Review: Kiko Live by Los Lobos

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It was only decades after their original release that live performances of many of rock and roll’s masterpiece albums—Sgt. Pepper’s, Pet Sounds, Love’s Forever Changes—were even attempted. Recreating the albums’ sounds required either an orchestra or other exotic instruments that were difficult to adequately mic and amplify, to say nothing of the expense. That’s changed considerably in the past decade or so, with the advent of advanced sound reinforcement systems, and we’ve seen those three albums staged convincingly.

With Los Lobos’ Kiko, the irreproducible aspects were not so much the instrumentation as its unconventional, even otherworldly sounds, the result of an “anything goes” approach by the band, producer Mitchell Froom, and engineer Tchad Blake. For this live performance of the entire Kiko album, from San Diego’s House of Blues in 2006, the striking sound and feel of the original album is secondary to the material and the band’s performance.

The only notable change in the band in the years between Kiko (1993) and Kiko Live has been Louie Pérez moving up front on guitar, with Cougar Estrada replacing him on drums—two shrewd moves. Having a third guitar in the mix contributes to the dense textures these songs sometimes demand, and Estrada is a solid drummer and adept percussionist.

On Kiko Live, the beefed-up band runs through the studio album’s 16 songs, including those they’d not performed live before, in the original running order. There is no narrative thread connecting the songs of Kiko—it’s not Tommy or S.F. Sorrow (by The Pretty Things)—but heard this way, in one continuous set, it’s evident how much thought went into sequencing the tracks. Heard uninterrupted, the 80-minute show’s quiet interludes alternate with scorching guitar workouts as if the concert program was always the goal. (The DVD offers the option of viewing the concert with or without the interview segments between songs.)

Kiko Live is a straightforward, unadorned concert video, but with some split screen features, and is devoid of fancy cuts and obtuse camera angles. There are no distractions to be seen. You simply get to see one of the great live rock and roll bands of our time perform their finest album from a memorable catalog of work. Through the course of the concert, Los Lobos show themselves as equally capable with powerhouse riffs (“Wicked Rain”), angular guitar lines (“Wake Up Delores”), and delicate, warped music box melodies (“Saint Behind the Glass”). They whisper and roar with equal confidence and conviction.

The sound design of the original album is so striking, it elevates even the less-experimental songs to a higher level. Without Froom and Blake’s contributions, Kiko’s songs have to stand on their own considerable merits, and the band’s ability to put them across without the studio album’s dense, unique mix. These are some of Los Lobos’ fieriest rockers alternating with their most intricate and intense quiet moments.

Anyone who’s heard Los Lobos live knows how naturally they can lock into a groove for a melody—rendered by David Hildago’s soaring voice or Cesar Rosas’ grittier holler and growl—to anchor to. Let loose of the studio confines, songs like the opening “Dream In Blue” provide plenty of space for Hildago to stretch out on several tasty solos, in addition to an all too rare solo spot for Steve Berlin’s sax work. The relaxed arrangements benefit tracks like the riffy “Wicked Rain,” the hypnotic “Angels With Dirty Faces,” and the mantra-like “Peace.” The instrumental, “Arizona Skies,” rich with percussion and Hildago’s guitar work, gains more widescreen, cinematic grandeur in the live setting.

The sound quality and mix are rich and textured, if not as exquisite as the remastered Kiko. Low-end is substantial (even without a subwoofer), the midrange is full and solid, and the highs avoid the brittleness and distortion so prevalent in digital live recordings, especially at high volume.

About James A. Gardner