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Los Lobos plays to the crowd

For each show, keyboardist sizes up the audience, then crafts a set list

Chad Swiatecki
Los Lobos are, from left, David Hidalgo, Cesar Rosas, Louie Perez, Steve Berlin and Conrad Lozano. loslobos.com

There's a very precise method Steve Berlin has employed for years in his role as the designated set list creator for veteran rockers Los Lobos.

OK, that's a lie.

‘I just kind of wander up to the curtain a half hour before the show while I'm drinking a beer, peek out into the crowd and try to feel them out and take their emotional temperature,' said Berlin, the band's keyboardist and horn player since the mid-'80s. ‘You pretty much know going in what type of a place you're playing and what they might be into, but going up there and getting a look helps you make sure. Of course, we could just ditch it all halfway in and just start calling songs out, it just depends.'

Berlin's dichotomy for crowds holds that he'll put together a pair of pretty different sets over the next two days, when Los Lobos plays to a honky-tonk contingent at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels tonight followed by a pair of shows Friday at the comparably refined and upscale One World Theatre in West Austin.

Although both shows will feature five or so songs from the band's latest release, ‘Tin Can Trust,' Berlin agreed that the surroundings and feel of the venues will help dictate the mood of the shows.

‘With Gruene Hall, you know every time you go into that place that it's going to be a full-on honky-tonk show and I'll try to picture myself as Willie (Nelson) while we're up there having fun,' Berlin said by phone from his home in Portland, Ore. ‘One World you kind of expect to be more sedate, but if it feels like they're up for rocking we'll definitely do it. That's one of the reasons why you have to have a look and see what it feels like before you go out there.'

The ability to shift gears and present a variety of shows to audiences is a benefit earned through the band's more than 30 years of playing, beginning with traditional Mexican norteño and bolero musics and progressing into roots, blues, jazz, and just about every Western musical idiom imaginable.

Asked if there's a style or region of the world the band still hopes to tackle creatively, Berlin comes up short.

‘At this point it's hard to think of anything we haven't worked in and there's not much we've missed along the way, so now it's all about refinement,' he said.

‘This one harkens back to the ‘80s because we're all playing in there live again and we're not exploring like the last record did. I think the versatility, that comes from being rock guys who wanted to play folklorico music and took the extra steps to learn everything we could about that music instead of doing a Robert Johnson thing some people do where one day you say ‘OK, I'm going to learn the blues' and you stop with one artist.'

Although that curiosity and dedication has made Los Lobos one of the most revered American rock bands ever, presenting such a wide swath of styles earned them plenty of criticism in their early days from folks who have more than likely long since eaten their words.

‘People would say we weren't playing things right, the blues guys and (Arhoolie Records founder) Chris Strachwitz would come out to our shows just to put us down and complain,' Berlin recalls. ‘We were just going on what we knew, finding a cool sound and then running off in search of more of it. That's still what we're doing today, even if sometimes we go on a tangent.'

Los Lobos plays at 8 p.m. Thursday at Gruene Hall ($35, 830-629-5077; gruenehall.com ), and at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Friday at One World Theatre (7701 Bee Cave Road; mostly sold out, some single seats available at press time for $70 and $85; 330-9500; oneworld theatre.org)