Lucius with Ethan Gruska First UU Church, Burlington, VT March 15, 2018
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It was all too fitting that the first time I saw Lucius’ Live Nudes Tour was in a church. Though I’m firmly against organized religion, seeing the five-piece from Brooklyn in a stripped-down, bare-bones setting is essentially a religious experience. Thumbing my nose at the SOLD OUT warnings on social media and the band’s website, I bought a couple “reserved seating” tickets on StubHub and invited a Burlington-based pal to come with me.
Burlington, Vermont is one of those magical places for reasons that are semi-ineffable. As my companion and I made our way to the Unitarian Universalist Church that proudly sits at the top of the eponymous Church Street Marketplace, we walked by clumps of snow and underneath strings of white lights that criss-crossed the street: a reminder of the lingering New England winter. I was dizzy- mostly from anticipation and perhaps a bit from the cocktails we imbibed before at ArtsRiot, a groovy Asian fusion place on Pine Street a few blocks from the church.
Lucius’ legend has grown exponentially since the two lead singers, Holly Proctor (née Laessig) and Jess Wolfe, were invited to perform as Roger Waters’ backup singers for the inaugural Desert Trip festivals and his subsequent Us + Them Tour. (Hence the SOLD OUT stamps covering most of their tour stop listings on their website.) Their Berklee College of Music-trained voices brought new life to Pink Floyd’s songs “The Great Gig in the Sky,” “Bring the Boys Back Home,” and “Mother,” among many others. I was fortunate enough to see the tour twice in 2017: once in Vegas the day after my birthday and once in Boston with my sister and brother. I won’t hesitate to say the power of the two women’s voices combined brought me to tears multiple times throughout the shows.
Though part of me is resentful that the success of Holly and Jess’ inclusion in the Us + Them Tour has led them to a wider and more clamoring worldwide audience, they absolutely deserve all the praise (and revenue) they’re receiving. The show that we saw in the stately sacred space in Burlington proved that in spades.
My companion and I were fairly surprised and ecstatic to see that the “reserved seating” tickets I had purchased meant we had free range of the first five rows- or pews, as the case was. We selected second row (second pew?), stage right, but then I suggested if we could sit in front row, we probably should. Settled mere feet from the “stage” that was more of a dais, we were basically vibrating with excitement. Strangely enough, my companion had never seen them before and his friend, turned out to be doing sound and had told him about the show minutes before I messaged him out of the blue asking him to go to the concert with me. I should really learn to stop being surprised by cool stuff like this cuz it happens to me fairly often. . .
A bit after 8 PM, Ethan Gruska took to the dais on guitar and keyboard to play a short and sweet ~35 minute set. As we learned later, Ethan’s sister was roommates with Jess Wolfe in college and Jess and Holly “sang them down the aisle” when she and her wife were married. A family affair, it would seem. Ethan Gruska’s music is in the bittersweet, soaring singer-songwriter vein, with a snarky self-deprecating angle for some of the songs. “Dialing Drunk,” for instance, he introduced to us thusly: “This is based on a true story. . . Sadly.” An Angeleno, he sang of growing up in “The Valley,” and of being your own worst enemy in “Attacker.” Then, as quietly as he entered, he left the makeshift stage.
After a nearly half-hour intermission, three members of Lucius came out to take their positions on the dais- Dan Molad, drummer (and husband of Jess Wolfe); Peter Lalish; and touring guitarist and backup singer Jay Blinn. As they began the quiet strains of their 2013 song “Go Home,” all eyes traveled to the “backstage” door out of which soon came the ladies of the evening. Identically dressed, as is their schtick, in velveteen overcoats, platinum blonde bob hairstyles, thick sparkly eyeliner and false eyelashes, they came to either side of a single vintage-style microphone. Swaying in time to the twang of the guitar and clack of the drumstick on the rim of the drum, the ladies intoned, “I’m your dolly/Stuffed with extra baggage/Lay me down to shut my eyes.”
Even typing that out gave me goosebumps! The harmonies and melodies that the women have created over their two studio LPs, 2013’s Wildewoman and 2016’s Good Grief, and this new EP Nudes, are nothing short of miraculous. How can I describe it in a way that will even come close to seeing it live? Well. . . good thing I took a lot of video. . . Highlights for me: their sweet cover of Gerry Rafferty’s underappreciated gem “Right Down the Line,” famously sung by Bonnie Raitt in 2012. However, Raitt’s version changes the refrain from “It’s been you, woman, right down the line” to “It’s been you, oh baby, right down the line.” In the context of Lucius’ version, which is faithful to Rafferty’s original, it takes on more meaning as a love letter from Holly to Jess and vice versa. It becomes more of a statement of the strength of their friendship and ability to create otherworldly duets.
Other notable covers included “Eventually,” the Tame Impala song that was all blaring horn samples, needling synths, and falsetto in the original. Lucius turns it into a heart-wrenching ballad with their two voices turning into satin ribbons in my synesthetic mind in the “Eventually. . . Ah-ah-ahh-ahh. . ” refrain. Scottish sister duo The McKinleys’ “Sweet and Tender Romance” became a hand-clapping hootenanny for the brief two minutes they performed it. Fun fact: that song was taught to them by Jeff Tweedy, of Wilco fame.
A note on the hand percussion: Holly and Jess didn’t just contribute their voices to this acoustic set- indeed, they turned their poppy synth-heavy hit “Something About You” into a foot-stomping, hand-clapping hoedown. “Turn It Around,” the tune off Wildewoman featuring some of the more high notes on the album, got the acoustic treatment as well as the women encouraged the audience to clap and sing along. The showstopper, for me, came as the band performed “Two of Us on the Run.” This past November I lost my girlfriend Joslyn at the age of 29 and the lyrics hit way too close to home as I sang along on my way from Western Massachusetts to Burlington:
There are two of us on the run
Going so fast, every doubt we had is coming undone
And falling behind with everything we left there
We held on for far too long
And now we pass so many people on the road
They could come along, I wish they’d been told
They may call it a shot in the dark From what we know, it’s not unheard of
And we’ll one day tell our story
Of how we made something of ourselves now
Seeing it live, with the two lady singers a mere ten feet away, was too much. I sunk to the floor in front of the pew and buried my face in my hands, quietly sobbing and mourning my lost love. Here, Lucius, here’s my heart- you own it now.
The band left the podium only to return shortly after (my companion and I went full-on Wayne’s World and salaamed them as they came back from backstage). For the multi-song encore, Holly and Jess jokingly chastised the crowd for being too solemn and then realized it was due to Dan the drummer shushing us in the beginning of the show. The five of them began riffing, soon collapsed into giggles, finishing with Holly brandishing jazz hands, saying, “. . . and that’s us!” as a bashful ba-dum tssh. They then brought Ethan out to perform “Dusty Trails,” a similar heartbreaking ballad from Good Grief that gained new nuance with Ethan’s vocals added to the mix- especially at the climax:
I’m halfway to misery
Some say when you go halfway there’s still plenty of time to return
Oh, am I halfway to heaven?
Some may say when you go halfway, you only have halfway to go
A pair of covers finished off the night. “Strangers,” by the Kinks, seemed to be also a nod to Holly and Jess’ friendship and professional collaboration:
So I will follow you wherever you go
If your offered hand is still open to me
Strangers on this road we are on
We are not two we are one
At this point, the three men behind the women left the dais. Holly and Jess each spoke to us, thanking us for making their decade-long dreams come true and impressing upon us the power of collaboration, “to create something bigger than yourself.” And thus, the synergy of the experience had words put to it! The final song? “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from the Disney movie Cinderella. Perfect for a real-life fairytale story such as theirs.
As we left the sacred space of the church-turned-concert hall, I was filled with the “joyful noise” the Bible describes in Psalms. We may not have served “the Lord” per se, but all of us- performers and those in the audience alike- came before each others’ presence with singing and certainly served the other well.
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