By Steve Houk livingonmusic.com
When Steve Berlin was honing his killer sax chops in his native Philadephia in the 70’s and 80’s, he was ripping it up with bands like Jimmy and the Rhythm Pigs, the Flesh Eaters and most notably, with the Alvin brothers in The Blasters.
To many people, good things happen for a reason, so a few years after The Blasters met Los Lobos, a then up-and-coming Mexican-American band from California, they asked them to open for them on an upcoming tour, and realized from the first song of their opening set that this was one very special bunch of musicians. The relationships deepened, and in 1984, with the Alvin brothers’ blessing, Berlin would join Los Lobos and never look back, as he is currently celebrating his 35th year with the same lineup he joined back then.
“That first rock show we saw them play when they opened for The Blasters was mind boggling,” said Berlin, 64. “It was like nobody we’d seen, really. I had seen them a couple of years before, they were playing folk music but not their rock and roll show. They were just incredible, they’d been together for seven or eight years at that point and it showed, I mean it was just the coherency to what they were doing that was obvious to me, at least. We became friends first, and then later on they said, ‘You know, we got a song that has sax parts, you want to learn them?’ I said ‘Sure’ and 35 years later, here we are.”
Berlin already had a decent music career going at the time he hooked up with Los Lobos, adding his stellar sax sounds to a variety of bands. And even during his last three decades with Lobos he has played with or produced the likes of Sheryl Crow, R.E.M., John Lee Hooker, The Replacements, The Smithereens and countless others. So there were certain elements of Berlin’s approach to playing that seemed to mesh with the ever-evolving nature of Los Lobos.
“I guess I have an open mind,” Berlin said. “But I think part of it might’ve been my musical upbringing in Philadelphia, you know, we were effectively trained to be ready no matter what the situation was. I played with much older guys growing up and it kind of taught me that whatever the situation is, keep an open mind, and be ready. So that’s how I get this. I guess that’s how I do it. And that was always part of it too, that they keep an open mind about stuff. Over time we kind of melded it all into one thing.”
Even though Berlin had played with bands and experienced music pretty deeply in his formative days, Los Lobos had some unique attributes and an alluring appeal that caused him to not only join them early on, but hang around for decades, as did his founding Los Lobos brothers.
“I think part of it was, you know, having two totally different, great singers, that was a huge thing as well. Not a lot of bands, you know, none of them that I can think of, had two totally different, unique singers. So there was a lot to like. And I know friends of mine that are just restless, you know, they like to do different things and they get tired of people that they play with. Let’s just say that we’re not like that, never have been.”
To Berlin, another facet of Los Lobos’ consistent success is that they really honed their talent before they sprung onto the mainstream scene, playing their traditional music at weddings, local events and parties amidst friends and family, and nurturing their sound and thus their experience from the get go.
“I think part of it was that when they started, they built this over several years, and they got good before anybody knew who they were. And I think to a certain extent, those years that the band played at those weddings and parties and stuff before anyone was paying attention kind of built an internal strength. And as far as staying power, it kind of served us all well over the years, and part of it is just the people that we are.”
One of the magical aspects of Los Lobos and another attraction for Berlin is that they have been able to retain the revered Latin-tinged vibe of their traditional days as they also transformed into a bonafide and respected rock/folk/R&B/TexMex-blended band worldwide.
“One of our unique things. I mean it was kind of I’ll say our superpower, is the fact that we could do that, blend the sounds, be what they were at their core and then also be a rock band, not a lot of bands have ever really been doing what we do. I would say a lot of it is a combination of that. And I think it’s also dumb luck, you know, we’ve had our moments, but none of it’s really knocked us down. And I think we just keep going and that’s the attitude that we carry on.”
Berlin knows he has had an illustrious musical journey, whether it’s his amazing 35 year run with Los Lobos, or the myriad of collaborative magic he’s made with some of rock’s best. And he knows full well it’s not a given when you take that first step as a kid that you will make it for a few years in the crazy business of music, let alone be at the top of your game for decades. It’s really, to him, all about balance.
“At this point I’m grateful, not a lot of people get to do it. Certainly for as long as we’ve done it. I still like the people I play with. And I still like the music, you know, sure, I get tired of certain songs every now and again, no big deal, the next night hopefully we won’t do those songs. We’ll do something else that I’m not bored of. But it’s all been pretty magical on balance.”