Ry Cooder, Election Special. When it comes time to find out what is going on in the country, maybe it's time to listen to someone who knows how to string a bajo sexto or saw the necks off glass bottles. It also wouldn't hurt to find out the feelings of a man who's recorded some of the great albums of the past 40 years, and carried on an unending musical search in the far corners of the world. That would be one Ryland Cooder, and for the latest excursion into the Californian's mind, he's turned that vision on what is happening in the United States as we scurry towards the nearest cliff.
This is a musician who has spent a life exploring whatever paths caught his fancy, and it's been a wild ride. Cooder has been able to resist the mainstream like it's just so much bubonic plague, but at the same time he's found a center which allows him to always find an audience. Maybe it's because the way he plays guitar and mandolin puts him squarely in a party of one, and since the start of his solo career in the early '70s he continually works the corners with an unerring ear for the awesome. Simply put, there is no other.
Cooder began as a young man in an older man's game, singing the songs of Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, and other wisened elders. In 2012 he's grown into himself and sharpened an already laser-like vision. On songs like "Cold Cold Feeling" and "The 90 and the 9," his voice has all the gritty grace of a man who walked the back streets and actually saw what he found there. Ry Cooder also understands that the politics of division that tear America apart is a losing game, and by throwing open the curtains and letting some sunshine in, just maybe humanity will win out and those who make the nation great will actually have a chance to live its dream. Until then, expect no breaks.
The Blasters, Fun on Saturday Night. Now, when it comes to bands that were originally inspired by the wide-open promise of Saturday night, a time when everything and anything could and would happen, start the list with the Blasters. The Southern California outfit, Downey to be specific, began as young musicians burning with the desire to find the source of rock and roll. Chasing after Big Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker and other bluesmen calling Los Angeles home then, brothers Phil and Dave Alvin knew they'd hit upon the promised land. With bassist John Bazz and drummer Bill Bateman, the early Blasters were like a souped-up stock car on a crazy-8 racetrack — they simply would not be stopped.
A few decades later, and Phil Alvin, Bazz and Bateman—joined by guitarist Keith Wyatt—show no signs of slowing down. Alvin's voice was always a unique joy, slipping and sliding all over the place with a total mind of its own. He never got tricked into being a blues singer, though Alvin was surely capable of extreme emotion, but would toss together country, rockabilly, soul and even touches of jazz wherever he wanted. In a way, Phil Alvin is a singing savant. There's no other way to say it, and he hasn't dropped a notch.
One of the always alluring aspects of a Blasters show is their set list. On Fun on Saturday Night, it veers all over the place, from James Brown's "Please, Please, Please" to Johnny and June Cash's "Jackson," where they're joined by X's Exene Cervenka. That's a stretch when you think about it, but this band has always been fearless. Just for kicks, they get all bilingual on their early hit "Marie Marie," turning it into "Maria Maria." Don't laugh; it works. They've always been a musical melting pot without making a big deal out of it, which still serves the Blasters well. Long may they wail.
Los Lobos, Kiko. Okay, has it really been 20 years since Kiko came out? What sounded like a trip to the other side of the sonic moon for Los Lobos in 1992 still has all the elements of an experimental excursion into new territory for East L.A.'s finest, and it's a total testament to a band that reached beyond their grasp and grabbed everything they could find. These are songs that explode with excitement, and never sound like anything that has come before. From the very first drum beat of opener "Dream in Blue," it's like Los Lobos turned out the lights and hid the manual. History would be made on "Kiko."
Songwriters David Hidalgo and Louie Perez heard the sirens' call when they created "Wake Up Delores," "Saint Behind the Glass," "Kiko and the Lavender Moon" and all the other wonders. There are obvious touchstones to past Lobos highlights, but in so many ways it sounds like the band changed the channel completely. Cesar Rosas' original contributions, "That Train Don't Stop Here" and "Wicked Rain" also pushed the edges outward, so by the end of the album—the careening "Rio de Tenampa"—everything adds up to the perfect postcard from a parallel planet.
It's hard to pinpoint when bands blast off into the stratosphere. So many do at their starts, and then wait for booster rockets to continually push them skyward. For Los Lobos, it's like fate picked them right at the beginning to carry the flag for those following their own playbook. When "La Bamba" threatened to turn them into a party band in the late '80s, they soon headed for the open fields with the La Pistola y el Corazon album and made it clear they had way different pescado to fry. Kiko cast that individualism in cement, and it's been the same ever since. Along the way, they've become America's great band in all its multicultural glory, and sound like they're just getting started. The wolf survives.