A few years ago I was interviewing Mitchell Froom. In the 1990s Froom was one of those Everywhere Producers. He was married to Suzanne Vega and helped with her records, he produced Crowded House – and played the beautiful organ solo for Don’t Dream It’s Over. He had mega-hits with The Corrs and Sheryl Crow and The Bangles – he also worked with mature artists such as Paul McCartney and Richard Thompson and Elvis Costello, he made records (good ones – from a time in limbo) for New Zealand’s own Tim Finn and Dave Dobbyn. He worked with everyone!
I was interviewing Froom ostensibly to talk about Don’t Dream It’s Over and Crowded House. But we got to talking about Lyle Lovett and making soundtracks for cult sci-fi porn films and arranging strings for Randy Newman’s Pixar projects and…on and on…two hours on the phone. It had come about as simply as this: desperate for an interviewee for my book about New Zealand songs (and Neil Finn wouldn’t talk to me – and fair enough, I had compared his wife to Linda McCartney – and not with regard to her photography skills and I had insinuated that he only reformed Crowded House to cash in on the drummer’s death) so in true hit-and-hope fashion I sent Froom a message via Facebook. At least I figured it must be Mitchell Froom. Who would pose as Mitchell Froom right?
I called him – we talked through the song and his involvement with Crowded House – he was a Split Enz fan in college in America; he took a punt on them, they were nobodies in the scheme, even though they came with a promise. It worked out pretty good and Froom had been able to move out of his own slightly crowded house as a result of producing the band (“I did okay, I got a nice place out of producing those guys – we did well”).
He raved about Neil Finn’s focus and songwriting chops and guitar playing – all no-brainer territory of course. Everyone knows that – or should. Anyone who tries to deny that is a fool. Finn’s supremely talented.
And then we got to talking about all those other projects – and about Froom’s own abilities as a live player. He’s a technically gifted player but wasn’t a born performer (his own assessment). He gushed about touring with The Latin Playboys though. That, apparently, was “something else!”
“What”, I asked, in that dumb way phone-interviewers will do, “was so great about that tour? What was so good about playing with the Latin Playboys?”
“Are you fucking kidding me”, Froom nearly spat. “Being on stage with the godlike David Hidalgo night after night – the greatest guitar player in the world. The greatest fucking musician in the world”. He said it to me as if it was just a fact. Common sense. And not to be disputed. And as he said it a hundred Hidalgo solos blazed through my mind. How stupid of me to ask! Of course!
Hidalgo’s main gig – for the last 40 years – has been as one of the driving forces in Los Lobos. Los Lobos is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the world’s greatest ever bands. The blessing/curse for them is to be known – in the mainstream – for La Bamba. It must have helped introduce a bunch of people to their sound. But it also defines them – unfairly. And they’re maligned (only by idiots of course) as some sort of cheap covers act.
Los Lobos is the greatest Tex-Mex/rock’n’roll/blues/soul band ever. And just one of the greatest live acts around. I say that – and yet I’ve never seen them. I dream of seeing them. I’ve seen footage. I own all the albums. I’ve been a fan since I first saw…well, their version of La Bamba. After digging on that movie soundtrack as a 10 year old or whatever I was I knew I had to hear more. Albums like Kiko (1992), The Neighbourhood (1990), By The Light of the Moon (1987) and How Will The Wolf Survive? (1984) were a big part of my teenage-listening.
And then I sorta forgot about Los Lobos for a bit. Would return to those albums – but they just got lost for me. I did check out The Latin Playboys. And Hidalgo’s other great side-projects Houndog and Los Super Seven and I did spot Hidalgo’s name in albums by other musicians – and if you don’t need a guitarist then you could always hire him as cellist, violinist, accordionist, bass player, drummer or almost anything else.
Most recently Hidalgo is back on guitar – playing with Tom Waits. He’s also been in the guitarist’s spot for Bob Dylan, having played almost every other stringed instrument for Bob on recent albums.
It was 2010’s Tin Can Trust – one of the most underrated albums around, I reckon – that sold me once again on Los Lobos, reminded me of the band’s incredible playing. And deep within that sound is Hidalgo – a great singer, and wailing away on that guitar. Blues bends, smoky R’n’B, the rattle of country-swing and rock’n’roll – he’s a master of (almost) all styles, bending them and twisting them to make his own.
You almost never see him on Best Guitarist lists – which is why I wanted to mention him here. And anytime I listen to his playing – so perfect – I have those words in my head from Mitchell Froom. A no-nonsense super-producer and session player who had scored big, big hits with pop bands, worked with former Beatles and Richard Thompson, played alongside one of Hidalgo’s songwriting heroes (Randy Newman) and been married to one of my personal heroes (Suzanne Vega). The way he said “Being on stage with the godlike David Hidalgo night after night – the greatest guitar player in the world. The greatest fucking musician in the world”. That was his career highlight, he was able, so swiftly, to nail it all right down to just that. A guy who had seen Costello and McCartney together, a guy who had helped to turn Suzanne Vega’s folk-derived songs into semi-industrial twitch-and-glitch noise-pop, a guy who had adlibbed that creamy, dreamy, nearly song-making organ solo for Crowded House’s Don’t Dream It’s Over. Mitchell Froom’s greatest moment in his career was watching Hidalgo from side of stage, and then from right next to him on stage. He couldn’t believe, he told me, that more people didn’t understand the genius this man was blessed with.
That spoke volumes. And I had already been won over by Hidalgo’s musicianship, by the greatest of his main band and by seemingly anything else he cared to touch.
Catching up on all of the very earliest Lobos material – and from that “lost” period for me (1994-2009) it’s mouth-dropping, staggering, breath-taking. The playing, the passion, the writing. Los Lobos is the best. And a big part of what makes them that is Hidalgo. And he’s found time to lend his sound to so many others as well. A musician’s musician.
This was originally published as part of a series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page.