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Los Lobos light up the neighborhood around Knuckleheads

Los Lobos performed Saturday at Knuckleheads Saloon.
Los Lobos performed Saturday at Knuckleheads Saloon. The Kansas City Star

Toward the end of Los Lobos’ performance at Knuckleheads on Saturday night, the stage was filled with musicians.

The headliners had invited Making Movies, Kansas City’s best Latin rock band. In all, 11 musicians were onstage, indulging in an extended jam that bristled with percussion and flurries of electric guitar, saxophone and violin. The song was “La Venganza de los Pelados,” a track from the Los Lobos album “Disconnected in New York City” and one of two Spanish language numbers featuring Making Movies.

After about 10 minutes, the jam peaked and resolved itself, and the crowd of 500 or so, many of whom had been dancing, some almost involuntarily, delivered a long, boisterous and well-deserved ovation.

Saturday’s show was the second night of the ninth annual MerleJam, a benefit for organ-donor recipients. It’s named for Merle Zeule, a long-time Knuckleheads employee who received a heart transplant in 2007.

Saturday’s bill featured several local bands and performers, including Amanda Fish, who performed in the Living Room, the small venue inside Knuckleheads, plus Maria the Mexican and Chris Meck & the Guilty Birds, who preceded Los Lobos on the main stage.

Meck and the Birds proved to be a suitable opener for the headliners. Their music feels both vintage and contemporary, a mix of rock, blues and soul, and every song featured some innovative guitar play from Meck, who has a tone and a voice all his own.

Their set included two great covers that took each song in a new direction: “Green Light Girl” by Doyle Bramhall II and “Honey Bee” by Tom Petty.

Los Lobos are familiar with Kansas City and Knuckleheads. The band was in town most recently in September for a performance at Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College. That show focused on traditional Tex-Mex and Latin American songs. Saturday, they focused more on their best-known original material.

They opened with “The Neighborhood,” the title track from their stellar 1990 album, featuring David Hidalgo on lead vocals. Fellow guitarist Cesar Rosas took lead vocal on the next song, “My Baby’s Gone,” as the sound crew worked around him trying to fix an amplifier issue.

In honor of MerleJam, Hidalgo sang a ragged but charming rendition of Merle Haggard’s “The Running Kind,” proving they could be a divine classic-country band.

They then went back more than 30 years to “Will the Wolf Survive,” a track from 1984’s “How Will the Wolf Survive?” — which was, for many of us, the first we heard of Los Lobos.

Bands that have survived several decades can go one of two ways: They can turn performing into a punch-the-clock duty or they can respect their craft and their audiences and treat each show like it might be one of their last. That’s what Los Lobos does, and with a great sense of humility and humor.

Just as Rosas was about to introduce the next song, a passing train sounded its foghorn whistle, and the band jumped into a few impromptu bars of “Folsom Prison Blues.” Then they went back to “The Neighborhood” and a rip-snorting version of “Georgia Slop,” which included some stellar baritone sax from Steve Berlin.

They slowed the mood precipitously, first with “Chains of Love,” then with a smoldering rendition of “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” featuring Hidalgo on accordion. They jump-started the vibe with the boisterous “Let’s Say Goodnight.”

Throughout the first half of the show, Los Lobos was joined by Juan-Carlos Chaurand, percussionist for Making Movies. A couple of Tex-Mex songs after “Let’s Say Goodnight,” the rest of his band — Enrique Chi, Diego Chi and Brendan Culp — joined him onstage along with violinist Coleen Dieker, a part-time Movies member.

The conjoined bands performed “Mas y Mas,” then the electrifying “La Venganza.” Amid a tide of solos from everyone onstage, none aroused bigger ovations than Dieker’s dynamic leads on violin.

The encore was almost anticlimactic. They pulled two more songs from “The Neighborhood,” both of them midtempo ballads: “The Giving Tree,” then “Emily.”

They closed with something more feverish: a fiery and slightly unkempt version of Neil Young’s “Cinnamon Girl.” It gave the crowd one more reason to cheer, even if it wasn’t the loudest of the night.