THROUGH THE LENS: Los Lobos and Béla Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart
Bela Fleck - Ace Hotel, Los Angeles, CA - Photo by Jim Brock
When reviewing the photos ND’s photographers had recently taken, two highlights quickly stood out: Peter Dervin shot all four nights of Los Lobos’ residency at the Triple Door in Seattle, and both C. Elliott and Jim Brock caught Béla Fleck’s My Bluegrass Heart, the former at the Fox Theatre in Tucson, Arizona, and the latter at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles. So it was an easy choice to showcase these photos, all of legendary artists, in a single column.
Formed in 1973, the East LA band fused all they heard around them, including Tex-Mex, zydeco, and traditional music such as Norteño, cumbia, and boleros with rock and roll. While their debut, self-titled 1977 album, Los Lobos del Este de Los Angeles, received local critical acclaim, it was 1983’s How Will the Wolf Survive? that was the turning point.
The album’s title had a double meaning, as “lobos” is Spanish for “wolves.” The first was literal at a time when the wolf was becoming an endangered species. The second was metaphorical: After 10 years, could Los Lobos’ brand of Mexican roots-based music, and the band itself, continue?
In a rave review of that album, Robert Christgau said of their songs, “Who did the original of that one, you wonder, only to discover that you’re listening to the original.” At the time, Christgau, a New York-based critic, was considered the dean of rock critics. In giving the 1983 album a rare “A” rating, he put the band on the national map.
Audiences were able to see and hear what the critics were raving about soon afterward as the band toured with Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, and U2. Now, coming up on their 50th anniversary, and with 17 studio albums and four live albums under their belts, Los Lobos have long been a headliner and are still thrilling longtime fans and making new ones. They are also accomplishing something perhaps a bit more difficult: staying true to their roots while continuing to make music that’s indispensable in an ever expanding roots music marketplace.
Winner of a phenomenal 14 Grammys, no one has taken the banjo farther, integrating it into so many types of music, than Béla Fleck. It’d be one thing if he’d been raised in Tennessee or Kentucky, but being a native New Yorker makes it that much more astounding. But then perhaps that’s the key, that he grew up in a melting pot of cultures.
After graduating from high school, Fleck moved to Boston, recording a couple of albums with others and playing on the streets. Somewhere along the line Sam Bush heard him and, in 1981, asked him to join New Grass Revival.
Upon leaving that band, in 1988 he formed the band Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, where he took both the banjo and his music to a stratospheric plane. He went on to win Grammys in these diverse categories: country, pop, jazz, classical crossover, instrumental composition, world music, and folk. I have not done a review, but I doubt any musician has been awarded Grammys in so many different categories.
Oddly, though, Fleck has never won a Grammy for bluegrass. That could well change as his latest album, My Bluegrass Heart, has been nominated this year in that category. In support of that album, Fleck has been touring with longtime friends, all legends in their own rights, including Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan, Jerry Douglas, Sierra Hull, Edgar Meyer, and Bryan Sutton. What a lineup.
Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.