It starts with a cowbell and then that amazing, ascending bass line, landing off-time on the upbeats. A quick roll of the drums and the rhythm kicks in, full of syncopation and soul. Congas, organ and harmonica propel the action, punctuated by a Spanish-tinged lead guitar lick that every 14-year-old in Los Angeles has learned how to play for the last 40 years.
"Low Rider," the song, has become such an anthem that it almost no longer belongs to its creators but to the world at large. It's been endlessly covered, featured in movies, and used as a joke every time a kid with a banana-seat, chain-link-handlebar bike comes rolling down the sidewalk, from Whittier to White Plains.
And in fact, the legacy of "Low Rider" doesn't belong to its creators. Well, four-fifths of them, at least. Howard E. Scott, B. B. Dickerson, Lee Oskar and Harold Brown are four of the five original living members of War, but due to one of those unfair, cutthroat lawsuits you hear about so often in the music industry, they can't perform under the name War. They can't even mention that they're original members of War on their concert posters. The venues they play aren't allowed to mention War in any advertisements for their shows. There's another band, fraudulently called "War," who by court order gets to do all those things—and it contains just one original member.
The "Lowrider Band" might sound like a name for a War cover band, but the fact is they're far closer to the real thing. Drummer Harold Brown once went to see War, and watched as keyboard player Lonnie Jordan was introduced as "the man who wrote all the songs." As he told Joel Selvin of the San Francisco Chronicle in 2009, he registered his complaint in direct fashion: he picked up a pie and hurled it at his former band mate.
Want to hear hits like "The World Is a Ghetto," "The Cisco Kid," "Spill the Wine" and "Why Can't We Be Friends" played by a bunch of hired hands and one original member? Then go see War, whose guarantees are so high that when a local promoter once called me for advice on whether to book the show, the ticket price would have been set near $50 just to cover expenses.
But if you want to hear that timeless, classic soul, played by the very people who absorbed Los Angeles' melting pot of African-American and Latino culture and swirled it into musical history, then you know which band to go see.
The Lowrider Band play Sunday, May 6, at the Mystic Theatre. 21 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 8pm. $31. 707.765.2121.