Los Lobos brings barrels of soul to the UC Theatre on Friday. Photo: courtesy Los Lobos

It’s one thing for a musician to dig down into the roots of a tradition and another thing entirely to create a personal voice out those influences. Several bands playing Berkeley in the coming days offer exceptionally vivid examples of the way a love of traditional forms can serve as a launching pad rather than a straight jacket.

Well into its fifth decade as LA’s greatest active rock band, Los Lobos plays its first Berkeley show in more than a decade at the UC Theatre on Friday (the East Bay ensemble Los Cenzontles play the opening set). Featuring essentially the same cast of players who came together in East LA in the mid-1970s (David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Cesar Rosas, and Conrad Lozano), the band received a new jolt of energy with the fall 2011 arrival of Mexican-born drummer Enrique “Bugs” González.

Last year the group released its 24th album, Gates of Gold (429 Records), and these restless stylistic prowlers seem to be in no danger of repeating themselves. Blues and funk, R&B and cumbia, soul and rollicking rock ‘n’ roll all jostle forward on different tracks, while the tunes are as concise and well-constructed as ever. They’ll play some of the new songs at the UC, but with such a vast catalog, they’ll be drawing from numerous albums.

“We have our go-to stuff,” says saxophonist/keyboardist Steve Berlin, who joined Los Lobos in the mid-1980s and has long served as the band’s in-house producer. “We don’t have set lists anymore. We got to the point where we were ignoring them. We have stuff we end up doing every night, and some times someone will yell out a song and we’ll attempt to address it. A while ago Dave brought it out ‘The Town,’ a song I’d forgotten about. We have a lot to pick from. They come and go. We play one into the ground, and don’t want to hear it for a year or so.”

Based in Portland for the past 12 years, Berlin has deep ties to the Northern California music scene, having produced albums by Jackie Green and Chuck Prophet. While various Lobos members pursue different projects and interests — David Hidalgo has been deeply engaged with Los Cenzontles Cultural Arts Academy in Richmond, collaborating on several albums with the Mexican-music ensemble — Berlin keeps the pack together when it’s time to work in the studio

I’ve always been the guy who organizes the recording sessions, hires the engineer, does the infrastructure work,” Berlin says. “I’m the only one who owns a calendar in the band. But once we’re in the studio everyone does their share of producing. Everyone’s involved and integral. We’ve got it pretty well down now, which isn’t to say that the records get any easier to make.

American roots: Evie Ladin plays the Freight

The Evie Ladin Band with Keith Terry and Erik Pearson plays Freight & Salvage on May 19. Photo: Gudmundor Vigfusson

If Los Lobos embodies the sound and cultural heritage of East LA, Evie Ladin infuses American roots music with an encompassing 21st-century sensibility. The Oakland singer, songwriter, banjo player and guitarists celebrates the release of her new album Jump the Fire at Freight & Salvage on Thursday, May 19. The Straybirds, an award-winning band from Nashville with a new album on Yep Roc Records, Best Medicine, shares the bill.

Founded about five years ago as a quartet, the Evie Ladin Band has evolved considerably since violinist/vocalist Dina Maccabee went off to study composition at grad school. Rather than recruiting someone to take her place, Ladin worked with the materials at hand, expanding the roles of Keith Terry on vocals, bass, percussion and body music, and Erik Pearson on vocals and guitar. Consistently smart, often funny, and rendered with verve and soul, the music brims with her bountiful spirit.

“The interplay and interaction tightened up in a whole new way, and the guys started singing more,” Ladin says. “Having the three part harmonies really takes it to a new level. These are the first songs I’ve brought out with the imprint of the new band. We have access to a lot of different deep knowledge bases. Keith thinks of really interesting bass lines and percussive riffs, and Erik was trained in composition at Oberlin, where he first heard old-time music. He can think expansively with the repertoire, adding chordal arrangements and colors. I bring the material, write the words and the songs.”

Steeped in Appalachian music, Ladin has played in a series of progressive-minded acoustic ensembles inspired by old-time music but not beholden to it (like the Stairwell Sisters). Her band is touring widely with the Straybirds in the coming months, but the show at the Freight isn’t going to unfold like their other gigs.

“I didn’t write the songs with that intention, but when I put the CD together I realized you could kind of tell a story,” she says. “For our hometown CD release we’re going to play album in order. My songs are not directly autobiographical, but they come from kernels I find interesting. They run the gamut, with songs about partying and about slogging through the adult stuff in life, songs about loss and songs that make the banjo a sexy instrument, one of my goals in life.”

Not coincidentally, she performed at the Freight last year as part of the Banjo Babes showcase. And in what may be a Freight first, Ladin has collaborated with her brother-in-law, musician and illustrator Sam Bartlett, to create an adult (that’s “adult” as in designed for adults, not the euphemism for X-rated) coloring book based on the album that will be available at the merch table. Bring your own pens and pencils.

Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....