Saxophonist and keyboard player Steve Berlin was working in Los Angeles with The Blasters when the relatively unknown band Los Lobos was their opening act at the legendary club Whiskey A Go Go. For The Blasters, led by brothers Phil and Dave Alvin, the early-80s gig was their debut on a major stage.
“We thought if we could get to that point, it would be fantastic,” Berlin said.
It was Phil Alvin who suggested Los Lobos after hearing a cassette tape of the band, Berlin said. That choice proved to be a good one.
“They were the talk of the town, literally,” Berlin said. “All everybody in Los Angeles could talk about was, ‘Did you see Los Lobos.’”
The members of Los Lobos soon enlisted Berlin to do some saxophone parts on their songs, which led to him producing a recording, “… And a Time to Dance,” and becoming a full-time member of the band.
On Friday, Sept. 15, Los Lobos certainly will be the talk of Bar Harbor. The band is stopping by The Criterion Theatre for an 8 p.m. concert, the northernmost date of a tour that includes a swing up the east coast from Florida.
The band had a few days off recently, but Berlin was still at work producing an album by the funk group Mama K and for The Shades in Austin, Texas. He is a Grammy Award-winning producer who has worked with, among others, John Lee Hooker, Buckwheat Zydeco and the Crash Test Dummies. Austin, he said by phone last week, had been spared the devastation Harvey wreaked on other parts of the state but still had storm-related problems. The first day of recording was cancelled after flooding kept some band members from getting to the studio.
Berlin is the newest member of the group, having been with them for 34 years. The founding of the group goes back to 1973, when guitarist David Hidalgo and drummer Louie Perez met at their high school in East Los Angeles. Fellow students Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano joined them. Enrique “Bugs” Gonzalez was added later.
A band staying together for such a long period is almost unheard of in the music business, especially in rock and roll where egos can create friction. Not so with Los Lobos, where there is “a lot of shared love,” Berlin said.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements. They just don’t get out of hand.
“At this point, we’re like an old married couple,” Berlin admitted.
Their familiarity extends to the stage, where the musicians often segue seamlessly from one song to the next. While it might seem planned, that usually isn’t the case.
“I will generally make set lists, but for the large part, they’re ignored,” Berlin said. “We try to respond in the moment to what’s going on.”
He described the process as “telepathic.” “I just know what’s coming next even before a song ends.”
The band certainly has a lot of material to draw from. On their more than two dozen albums, Los Lobos has demonstrated a variety of influences from traditional Mexican music, blues, country, Tex-Mex and rock and roll. Their recording of “La Bamba” for the 1987 biopic about singer Richie Valens reached number one that same year. Berlin pointed out it’s the 30th anniversary of that recording, so that might be one song performed in Bar Harbor.
Their latest album, “Gates of Gold,” was released in 2015 and garnered critical acclaim. Whether there will be another Los Lobos album is up in the air.
“I’m afraid we’re without a record label right now,” Berlin said, adding that streaming services have changed the “landscape” of the record industry.
There’s also the question of having the right material.
“The hardest part is making it sound like something we haven’t already done,” he said.
For now, Los Lobos is putting their energy into live shows.
“We’re cognizant of the fact we’re lucky to be able to do what we do,” Berlin said.
Berlin had no predictions for the show at the Criterion. It all depends on the mood that night.
“If the crowd is up and dancing, then we keep them dancing,” he said.
Tickets for Los Lobos cost $60 for balcony and orchestra premium seats and $40 for general seating. They are available at the Criterion box office and online at criteriontheatre.org.