For years, the Zoo Bar celebrated its anniversary with a two-day festival on 14th Street outside the small club, largely putting artists that had played inside to 100 people in front of thousands on the street.
Of late, however, Zoofest has been headlined on one of its nights by a major roots music artist that has never played the club.
This year, celebrating its 45th anniversary, the Zoo has taken that new philosophy to an ever higher level by booking, by far, the biggest act in Zoofest history in Los Lobos to headline the festival Friday.
Considered by some as the greatest American band, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-nominated Los Lobos has won multiple Grammys, had hit records and plays for thousands at its shows and more at festivals.
“Los Lobos is a band I’ve been trying to get for years,” said Zoo Bar owner Pete Watters. They’re truly one of the best things I’ve ever seen.
Los Lobos follows Zoofest performances by Delbert McClinton and Irma Thomas.
“I think we are getting pretty established," Watters said. "The agents know who we are and where we are.”
That Los Lobos is the biggest act to have ever played Zoofest can be easily seen just by looking at the group's previous Lincoln shows -- at Pershing Center in 1996 and at the Lied Center for Performing Arts in 2009. Those venues with capacities in the thousands are, shall we say, slightly larger than the Zoo Bar.
Los Lobos was put together by four friends in East Los Angeles in 1973 -- the year the Zoo Bar began its run as a music club -- to play a mix of traditional Mexican music and rock ‘n’ roll for their friends and families.
That is the connection, Los Lobos’ Louie Perez told the Journal Star in 2009, that has kept the band together for more than four decades.
“If you strip it all down, it's four guys who grew up together and are friends," he said. "Over the last few years, we've all lost parents and we've gone through that together. Those are things that don't have a thing to do with the band. We're just friends. We're a family, as dysfunctional as we might be."
Perez, who is the band’s primary lyricist, moved from guitar to drums when Los Lobos began but is back on guitar live, with Enrique González, now a touring member on drums. The other Los Lobos members are David Hidalgo (vocals, guitar, accordion, violin, keyboard), Cesar Rosas (vocals, guitar, mandolin), Conrad Lozano (bass, guitarron, vocals) and Steve Berlin (saxophone), the only member who didn’t grow up in East L.A.
"In the early years, all our moms knew each other," Perez said in 2009. "When I'd come home after a fight in the band, my mom would say 'You're going to quit? You go apologize to Conrad right now.' The same thing would happen with David and Cesar and Conrad. They wouldn't let us break up."
Los Lobos emerged outside the neighborhood in the late '70s/early '80s Los Angeles punk rock scene that birthed kindred spirits The Blasters and X and attracted national attention with its 1984 Slash Records debut, "How Will The Wolf Survive?"
But it took a 1987 cover of "La Bamba" that served as the title cut to the Ritchie Valens bio-pic to push the band into mainstream visibility. That success, however, didn't lead to musical repetition. Instead, the band followed its hit with a recording of the traditional Mexican song "La Pistola y El Corazon," for which it received the second of its three Grammy Awards.
In 1992, the band released the wildly experimental "Kiko," followed a few years later with the critically acclaimed, equally different "Colossal Head." The band has continued to zig and zag, making an EP of cover songs, then some originals and a disc of songs from Disney movies.
In 2015, Los Lobos was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and released its most recent album “Gates of Gold,” on which it masterfully spins together the mix of rock 'n’ roll, blues, folk, soul, Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican music with experimentation and mystery, creating one of the best records of its career.
Los Lobos is likely to draw one of the biggest crowds ever at Zoofest as well. It’s booking also necessitated in increase in the ticket price. Day of show tickets will be $35. Advance tickets are $30.
Also on Friday’s bill will be Lincoln’s superb country-rock band Evan Bartels & the Stoney Lonesomes, Chicago blues showman Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials with Lincoln soul band Josh Hoyer & Soul Colossal closing the night.
Saturday, Zoofest returns its traditional booking, with headliner Nikki Hill, who has become a pack-the-place draw inside returning to the outdoor stage that she scorched two years ago with her high-octane rock ‘n’ roll.
Also taking the stage Saturday evening will be Ameripolitan country act -- and Zoo favorite -- Dale Watson, and Bay Area blues-rock guitarist Tommy Castro & The Painkillers. Saturday afternoon’s lineup begins with students from the Blues Education Program followed by Omaha blues artist Hector Anchondo and Red Elvises, the highly entertaining Russian folk/rock ‘n’ roll band.