To call Kingston “instrumental” in the national launch of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles band Lucius would be a bit of an embellishment of the kind we should leave to realtors, gentry-baiting developers and their pocket scribes. But one thing is for certain: The second of their two shows at BSP – in February of 2013, months after their O+ debut – happened to coincide with the exact instant of their national liftoff. I am still scarred by the afterburners. They shared the bill that night with Kingston’s literal luminary Shana Falana and the angular, cerebral neo-soul band Ava Luna, also buzzing hard in the Borough at that moment (and also still going strong).
This was mere weeks after Lucius’ legendary Tiny Desk performance, and the clip had just begun going pandemic-level viral. No band – none, ever – is better suited for that one-mic, fully exposed, show-me performance mode than Lucius, and they soared; they soared. To hear it is to love Lucius, as surely as even to see a black mamba on the beach is to be already dead. By the time they hit BSP, the buzz was palpable, the performers themselves almost taken aback by the people, and the energy, suddenly attending their road shows. It was, as they say, on.
Memory informs me that it wasn’t a full house – two-thirds, maybe less, on a winter weeknight. Crowd size was not the index of this band’s oncoming fate; it was the feeling in the room and the love of the people. Everyone knew they were part of something special about to happen. I’ve endorsed and championed a lot of bands in my life; never before or since have I witnessed the first blossoming of inevitable stardom like that. Hell, I had gone principally to see Ava Luna, who were great – and then Lucius made everyone tremble and cry. BSP booking agent and aesthetic architect Mike Amari leaned over to me during their transcendent set and said, “Next time they play here, it will be in the [1,000+ capacity] back room.” All of us at BSP that night can be forgiven for feeling that we were partly responsible for the rise of Lucius, but it was straight fait accompli.
Across their career, Lucius has struck me as a band at war with itself. Live as on record, they present as yet another Brooklyn hybrid electro outfit, with a visual theatricality and a huge conceptual hook in the costumed twinning of frontwomen/songwriters/multi-instrumentalists Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig. Paradoxically, they are – when they want to be, when they let themselves be – the best damn organic/acoustic vocal pop band you have ever seen: Holly and Jess and the three fellows (now two) singing their schooled and sophisticated pop gems with an unstylized, torchy passion and massive chops; drummer/producer Dan Molad playing on his feet and banging the crap out of a big inverted marching-band drum; tricky-bits guitarist Peter Lalish adding the filigree and the grace strokes. It is ultrafine and emotionally raw, musically super-savvy but with a vigilantly guarded core of naïveté and joy. Perfect, in a word.
In their recordings, however, they grope, they search, they glom fads and anticipate moments. Their records – formidable, deep, labored and riddled with great songs – can sometimes vaguely disappoint those have seen them live. A veteran of their shows could be excused for feeling that a band this preternaturally gifted at pure signing and expressing should perhaps act like time and technology ended in 1973. Why? Because they can.
Instead, we get contemporary and fully credible studio records with darting synth arps, vocal filtering galore, de rigueur club beats, glitch disjunctions, guitars mostly as reference, all with some generous bandwidth reserved for classicist ballads and torch songs. Nothing can suppress this band’s unfettered vocal virtuosity, so everything still soars stratospherically, but consider this: After their fine debut full-length Wildewoman and the more fully committed electronica of Good Grief, Lucius’ most iconic and beloved recording remains the song “Go Home,” a mostly acoustic, live-in-studio track from their self-titled debut EP, then ported unaltered to Wildewoman, where it continues to be the chief proselytizer for their greatness and the touchstone of their live sets. It is as irresistible a song and performance as I can name.
In today’s indie, retro affect, Laurel Canyon obsession and gestures of vintage production pop grandeur are in full effect. From Father John Misty to Weyes Blood and many more, the studio records of Harry Nilsson are the new religion (though of course not everyone is quite the arranger they might think themselves to be). Lucius is not and has never been that. So why are they the one band that I would love to hear make that kind of record? Chops and talent, nothing more: simply because they can.
Speaking of 1973, Lucius keeps some heady company these days. Jess and Holly famously toured the world as a featured “Lucius module” embedded in Roger Waters’ band, and now the full band is out with Jackson Browne, one of the chief beneficiaries of the new Canyon age and rage. It is a natural pairing, and if Holly and Jess don’t sit in on Jackson’s set, something is terribly wrong here. Jackson Browne and Lucius perform at the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts on Saturday, July 6. Pavilion seats range in price from $53 to $144. Lawn space is available for $38.50.
Lucius opening for Jackson Browne, Saturday, July 6, 7:30 p.m., Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, 200 Hurd Rd., Bethel, www.bethelwoodscenter.org