Think of a gang from LA and some pretty negative images come to mind, but the smiles on the faces of the punters throughout this gig spoke of a welcome to one particular gang of Latinos that was reciprocated in an exuberant performance that combined accomplished musicianship with undiminished enthusiasm. This quintet has been playing together for more than 30 years, and it showed in the way the original members – Louie Perez, Conrad Lozano, Cesar Rosas, David Hidalgo and Steve Berlin, supplemented by the muscular and inventive drumming of Cougar Estrada – played a set that they seemed to be making up as it went along.
This was confirmed at the end when the guy next to me got hold of one of the band's set lists and it revealed that they had followed the script for only the first four songs; thereafter, gleefully taking (and playing) requests, egging each other on, and running impressively through a wide range of musical styles.
Very few bands can pull this off, and they are the best of them, their craft honed on the US bar-band circuit where you take your cue from the audience and learn to play anything. So we got rock'n'roll, blues, bits of soul and jazz, West Coast rock, covers of "My Generation" and "Mr Fantasy" and of course their trademark Tex-Mex and cumbia, all delivered with a joy that bounced backwards and forwards between band and audience all night.
Even some technical hitches with Hidalgo's amp early in the set didn't hamper their momentum and seemed in fact to spark the departure from the set list as he switched guitars and let Cesar Rosas call the next few songs. With his driving rhythm playing, and Conrad Lozano's melodic bass laying down a perfect foundation, the grinning diminutive Rosas makes a great musical and visual foil to Hidalgo, whose sweet voice and fluid lead guitar belie his shambling, bearlike appearance. When he strapped on the accordion for a few Mexican numbers the two Spanish girls in front of me who hadn't stopped moving all night danced even harder.
Basically, good as their albums are, this is a band you have to see live to appreciate what they're really about. It's been a long time since they played Dingwalls with Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer in the audience, as recalled by David Hidalgo, but I doubt they've played many better gigs than we less celebrated fans were privileged to witness in 2009.