Los Lobos at 9:30
There's no arguing Los Lobos' power as a cover band.
In its uneven but occasionally really good two-hour set Thursday at the 9:30 club, the self-proclaimed Pride of East L.A. offered some straight rock tunes from its 1984 major-label debut LP ("I Got Loaded" and "Don't Worry Baby"), Tejano gems ("Ay Te Dejo en San Antonio") and several cuts from the recent CD "The Ride" (including "Chains of Love," dedicated to Ray Charles).
Like Aaron Neville, lead singer David Hidalgo boasts a voice quite soft for a guy with such a massive physique. Too soft, in fact, to establish much presence in the sound mix of a combo that usually comprised three electric guitarists, two drummers, a bassist and a sax player (Steve Berlin, the "honorary Chicano" who defected from fellow Los Angeles band the Blasters to join Los Lobos in the early 1980s).
For whatever reason, the band clicked best with the crowd when playing other folks' classics. Covers are nothing new to Los Lobos: The group's only No. 1 hit was a version of Ritchie Valens's "La Bamba" in 1987. Band members teased the crowd with cliche riffs all night long. Hidalgo played a few bars of the Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun." Bass player Conrad Lozano cued the Animals' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place." Guitarist Cesar Rojas began Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." But in each case, the playing stopped after seconds.
Late in the evening, however, Hidalgo led a long, wonderfully rough version of "Not Fade Away," the 1957 standard by Buddy Holly (who, coincidentalists would want to point out, died in the same plane crash as Valens). That jam segued into an equally glorious take on the Grateful Dead's "Bertha." The night's biggest reaction came when Hidalgo broke off the power chord opening of the Who's "My Generation," and his mates kicked in like a gang of punks. A bilingual roar shook the club.
-- Dave McKenna
Devendra Banhart at Iota
If Aimee Mann and Michael Penn hadn't already grabbed the name "Acoustic Vaudeville" for their tour, it would be a great moniker for the lineup that visited Iota on Thursday night.
First up: the soft-spoken San Francisco band Vetiver. Beginning as a trio, violinist Jim Gaylord, cellist Alissa Anderson and guitarist-vocalist Andy Cabic were soon joined by a local friend, Kevin Barker of Aden, whose guitar fills were a welcome addition. A straight-faced delivery of Randy Newman's "Burn On" notwithstanding, the group came off as hermetic, the members' attitudes suggesting they weren't all that comfortable with being heard and the tunings sometimes at battle with each other. But the songs had a hypnotic grace that made what they were driving at sometimes more satisfying than what they actually accomplished.
The hush was broken by Joanna Newsom, who stood in front of her concert-size harp and bellowed an incantation in a voice that sounded like Shirley Temple on a bender. When she took to the harp, flailing and wailing, what could have been affectation revealed itself as genius: her rhythms precisely rendered by fingers on strings and meticulous enunciations, her riffs catchy, her lyrics deeply poetic.
The star attraction, critics' darling Devendra Banhart, likewise grabbed hold of the crowd with what he announced would be "a series of very short songs" comprising very odd lyrics ("Your eyelash is an island"), vocal trills not heard since Tiny Tim and steady, ambling guitar figures built on Piedmont blues, raga and God knows what. Cabic joined him for some guitar duets -- and as accompanist when Banhart elected to fling his guitar over his shoulder, stand on his chair and roar. Various artists joined him for the grand finale, the shamelessly catchy "Shame." If you saw this crowd busking at Dupont Circle, you'd sure want to give them more than a buck.
-- Pamela Murray Winters