From the outset of his career, saxophonist Steve Berlin has always played to his own tune. The Philadelphia native and longtime member of Los Lobos spent his summers down the shore, including a memorable time in the early '70s when he performed at a club called Mother's in Somers Point. His band traded hourlong sets with another group on the late, late shift, which ran from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m.
Since the owner of the club owed money to the bass player, the band could get away with straying from the typical stuff of cover bands, according to Berlin.
"It was the smallest and hippest club in Somers Point," he recalls. "We were doing Zappa covers when everybody else was doing Springsteen. He was a God even then, but we did none of his music. It was a subject for contention. People would come to shows and get upset with us."
Now some three decades into his stint with Los Lobos, and via his work as a session musician and/or producer with The Replacements, Faith No More and Sheryl Crow, among others, Berlin continues to chart his own musical course.
"Before I was a member of the band, just being a fan, I was struck by how authoritatively the guys could play almost anything," says Berlin, who performs with Los Lobos, Los Lonely Boys and Alejandro Escovedo, 8 p.m. Friday, July 12, at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City.
"It was amazing how they understood music. It was in their bones. To this day, people can't follow that a Latin band is one of the best blues bands in the world. We're still breaking molds to a certain extent."
Formed in 1973 in East Los Angeles by high school buddies David Hidalgo (vocals/guitar) and Louie Perez (drums), Los Lobos worked on its sound for a decade before making its major label debut with "... And a Time to Dance."
The EP, which was co-produced by T-Bone Burnett and Berlin, then a member of The Blasters, won Los Lobos its first Grammy for Best Mexican-American performance for "Anselma.
Subsequent full-length releases - "How Will the Wolf Survive" and "By the Light of the Moon" - got the attention of critics, but Los Lobos didn't enjoy major commercial success, until it recorded the title track and other songs for the soundtrack of "La Bamba." The 1987 bio-pic about the late Mexican-American singer, Ritchie Valens, who was killed in a 1959 plane crash with Buddy Holly, became a sleeper hit, propelling Los Lobos' version of the title song to the top of the charts.
"It's a long way back, but it means a lot to people," Berlin says of the "La Bamba" song. "It changed our lives. We never mind playing it."
Having a major hit also gave the band a chance to see "life at the top of the food chain," according to Berlin.
The moment proved to be fleeting, however.
"When the movie died down, we found ourselves where we were when it started," Berlin says. "It wasn't quite the emergence of our catalog that most hit records become."
Over the past two decades, Los Lobos has continued to record prolifically, and draw from various styles, including rock, country, blues and various forms of Mexican and Spanish music. The group has even made an album of covers of Disney tunes.
For its 40th anniversary, Los Lobos is releasing a recording of a live, mostly acoustic set, and is just starting to think about a new album for the fall of 2014.
"We've managed to eke out a 40-year career," Berlin says. "We can't complain about anything. We've been incredibly lucky –– it's been an amazing run."
Openers Los Lonely Boys, Escovedo are key part of the show
The Los Lobos show will offer a "convivial" atmosphere of like-minded musicians, with plans for openers Los Lonely Boys and Alejandro Escovedo to jam with the main act, according to Los Lobos saxophonist Steve Berlin.
"It's a very free-flowing evening," he says. "The stage will be set up for both bands, so they can get up and jam with us and we can jam with them."
Escovedo, brother of former Santana drummer Pete Escovedo and uncle to Sheila E., will open the show. He is touring behind last year's "Big Station," which was produced by Tony Visconti, best known for his work with Davie Bowie. Escovedo is another restless artist, whose genre-spanning career has included punk-rock, cow-punk, alt-rock, Americana and roots-rock.
Los Lonely Boys, left, which will follow Escovedo, hit the big time with their 2004 debut single, "Heaven." The latter topped the charts and became a radio staple. The versatile group –– which consists of brothers Henry, Jojo and Ringo Garza –– is similar to Los Lobos in that its core "Texican rock 'n' roll" sound encompasses everything from rock, blues and soul to country and Tejano music.
Los Lonely Boys has recorded five studio albums, several live recordings and a holiday record, but none have made quite the impact of "Heaven."
Los Lobos with
Los Lonely Boys
and Alejandro Escovedo
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, July 12
WHERE: The Music Box, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Atlantic City
HOW MUCH: Tickets, priced at $45 and $49.50, are available at the Borgata box office, TheBorgata.com or
WEB SITE: LosLobos.org