Los Lobos sings for homeless San Diego youths
The fabled band from East L.A. returns to perform a Saturday benefit concert at Speckels Theatre for the San Diego charity Doors of Change
As a founding member of Los Lobos, the pioneering rock band from East L.A. that has won three Grammy Awards in two non-rock categories, Louie Pérez happily gives his all to the music he loves. He is equally devoted to furthering his five-man group’s support for worthy causes, particularly when it comes to using music to help those in need.
But Pérez prefers to lend that support without a hint of fanfare, the better to firmly put the focus on those causes. Accordingly, he sounded almost embarrassed to be the subject of any attention when recently discussing the helping hand Los Lobos has extended over the years.
“I’m not trying to flatter myself. It’s a question of: ‘What are we going to do with part of these proceeds we earn? Let’s pay it back’,” said Pérez, who in 1987 saw Los Lobos’ version of “La Bamba” become the first Spanish-language song to top the national Billboard Top 40 record charts.
“We do this everywhere — (most recently) for a food bank in Folsom — it’s not a one-off,” he continued. “We try to stay engaged.”
One of Los Lobos’ longtime beneficiaries has been Doors of Change, which since 2001 has raised nearly $4.5 million to help homeless and at-risk San Diego youth.
A consistent source of income for the local nonprofit has been the auctioning of donated guitars, keyboards and other musical instruments, which have been signed exclusively for Doors of Change by such legends as the Rolling Stones, Elton John, the late B.B. King and others. To date, more than $865,000 has been raised through such auctions, starting with an electric piano signed by Billy Joel in 2001.
Los Lobos has autographed guitars for Doors of Change, formerly known as Photocharity, for the past 18 years, with each instrument bringing in an average of $1,000.
On Saturday, the veteran band will headline “A Concert of Hope” at downtown’s Spreckels Theatre. Local favorites B-Side Players will open the show, the biggest fund-raising concert for Doors of Change since blues giant King headlined a 2007 benefit here for the organization.
Do the right thing
“This benefit concert we’re doing in San Diego is just a little thing we can to do help out,” said Pérez, speaking by phone from Oregon.
“It’s a tragedy that some kids are living on the streets, and it’s not because they want to. We do what we can. It’s just about all of us doing the right thing, which is to take care of each other.”
Doors of Change’s motto is: “Solving youth homelessness, one youth at a time.”
During the first dozen years of the organization’s existence, the 19-year-old nonprofit raised more than $2 million in funding for the Storefront, San Diego Youth Services’ shelter for homeless youth.
Since 2013, Doors of Change has focused largely on its weekly Sunday Taking Music to the Streets program. It is held at Episcopal Church Center in Ocean Beach and provides free music lessons, instruments, aid and resources to transitional age youth between the ages of 17 to 25.
“More than 2,700 individual homeless youths have come to Taking Music to the Streets since 2013. “Music is literally helping to save their lives.”,” said Doors of Change founder Jeffrey Sitcov.
“In order to help more homeless youth get off the streets, we are committed to expand to a second location within 18 months by using the Taking Music to the Streets model as a template. Within five years, we want to have a minimum of three locations in San Diego County. Presently, we are looking at potential areas in Oceanside, Escondido, South Bay, downtown, and East County. We will offer a music and art program twice a week, expressive arts, case management services, dinner, clothes, shoes, toiletries and outreach to help find other youth who need help.”
Such sentiments strike a resounding chord with Pérez, who started off as the drummer in Los Lobos before switching mostly to guitar. Together with guitarist and singer David Hidalgo, he has co-written such classic songs by the band as “The Neighborhood,” “Angels with Dirty Faces,” “Song of the Sun” and “Will the Wolf Survive?”
“Everyone who has the propensity for doing the right thing does the right thing; it doesn’t make me special,” said Pérez, 66, who — like Los Lobos’ three other co-founders — grew up in East Los Angeles.
“It comes back to who we are, the way we grew up and our culture. We take care of people. My mother fed homeless people on our front porch when I was a kid. These are people who looked like Dust Bowl-era hobos from a Dorothea Lange photo.
“I learned that you do these things — you take care of people. It doesn’t make you special. It’s just the right thing to do. It’s what I believe in. It’s what my sister and I grew up doing. And it’s what I see a lot of young Chicanos doing. A lot of young people are doing things to motivate other people and advance our cause as Mexican-Americans.”
Helping dispel stereotypes
That cause has been a driving force for Los Lobos since its formation in the mid-1970s, when the fledgling group’s members were all recent high school graduates.
They started off covering songs by such pioneering English folk-rock bands as Fairport Convention and Fotheringay, before turning to traditional Mexican folk music, then rock and blues.
After that, Los Lobos began to mix an increasingly varied array of styles. The result has been a wonderfully rich and distinctive sound that fully coalesced on the band’s masterful 1992 album, “Kiko.”
“We were Chicanos from East L.A. and we were listening to Fairport and Fotheringay!” Pérez recalled with a chuckle. “In a way, Los Lobos is modeled after Fairport, because they took traditional music and did something different with it. And that’s what we’ve done.
“At one point in America, everything was crossing over. That was largely, but not solely because of Elvis (Presley). He put a white face on black music. We’re putting a brown face on everything.”
In the process, Los Lobos has helped to dispel stereotypes about Hispanic-Americans in general, and Chicanos specifically, by embodying diversity and by embracing and broadening their cultural traditions.
“We made a choice back in 1985 when we were signed by Warner Bros. Records to make our ‘How Will the Wolf Survive?’ album,” Pérez recalled.
“We’d already made this cool EP that you could dance and snap your fingers to. With Warner Bros. we were approaching the world stage — ‘The Show,’ as they call it in (Major League) baseball — so we made a conscious decision. We realized: ‘We can be a cool, fun band, or we can be something more.’
“That’s when we decided we needed to do something a little more responsible. We had been given a platform and forum, as Chicanos and Mexicanos, for what we have to say and need to do. So we wrote (the song) ‘A Matter of Time’ about immigrants crossing the border. And we wrote ‘Will the Wolf Survive?’ about change and young people taking what they have and making something out of it.”
What Los Lobos does not do is preach or proselytize in its songs. And that, Pérez stresses, is a conscious decision.
“It takes a little bit of care and thought,” he said. “We learned right away that — if we wanted to express and give focus to things that are really important to us — it couldn’t be specific. It couldn’t be hitting somebody over head with a picket sign, and it couldn’t just be about my cause or my people.
“Because, what I noticed the first time we went on the road (in 1983), is that there are more similarities than differences between people. So we realized the need to create something that everyone can relate to and feel some kind of compassion for people who have been handed a bad deal.”
Doors of Change presents “A Concert of Hope,” featuring Los Lobos, with B-Side Players
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Spreckels Theatre, 121 Broadway, downtown
Tickets: $39.50 to $69, plus service fees
Phone: (619) 235-9500.
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