Five years can seem a long time for anyone, and as the saying goes, that's a lifetime in rock 'n' roll. Such was the case with Tucson's Rich Hopkins, who debuted upon the scene in 1988 with his band the Sidewinders and their first album Cuacha!. With the Sidewinders, Hopkins would subsequently weather highs (national touring and airplay and a two-album run with Mammoth/RCA) and lows (a protracted delay for the group's fourth album, a forced name change to the Sand Rubies, the departure of the group's rhythm section). By the end of '93, the band was history, albeit one bearing a wealth of indelible desert-rock memories.
Hopkins, however, was a cat with an extra life or two stashed away. Even before the Rubies' demise, he'd begun toying with assorted side projects. His 1992 album Personality Crisis was less a solo effort and more a collection of collaborations with various Tucson musicians billed as Luminarios, but it clearly laid the groundwork for what would become Hopkins' next incarnation.
With the release of Dirt Town in '94, Hopkins formally appended the term "And Luminarios" to his name as he began the long process of working through his own musical personality crisis. No longer paired with longtime partner and lead vocalist Dave Slutes, he took on the double burden of singing and being responsible for all the songwriting. Subsequent albums -- Dumpster of Love, '95; El Paso, '96; The Glorious Sounds Of, '97; 3,000 Germans Can't Be Wrong: Live in Regensburg, Germany, '98 -- would prove to be a sort of secondary coming of age for Hopkins. And by his own admission, it hasn't been easy.
"All the lineups I've had -- there have been a lot of people to pass through the Luminarios lineup -- it's all about the chemistry and the timing. And my state of mind, too. Coming out of the Sand Rubies, I hadn't found exactly what I wanted to do musically, and while I knew I wanted to go on, it's taken some time to just learn about how to do things in a different way. It's a lot harder when you're trying to write all the songs for yourself -- it is a learning process. I just don't think you can automatically become good at everything you do. You have to find the personal and the emotional balance along the way."
(Interestingly, during the middle of all this, the Sand Rubies got back together when Hopkins and Slutes did some overdue fence-mending. Reuniting with their old bassist and drummer, the group enjoyed two and a half years of occasional touring and recording, finally putting the beast to rest for good last spring. During that period, three CDs, featuring mostly archival material but with some new songs, were issued. Of the extended reunion, Hopkins reflects, "I was personally glad to get back with those guys, because when it was first broken up and over with, there were a lot of hard feelings. And there was a big part of me that missed being in that band. To be able to play those songs again was really good. But after we got back from a tour of Europe, things started falling apart a bit again and there didn't seem to be any real motivation to keep it together any longer. I did record the shows over there, so maybe some of that will come out one day.")
Apparently, Hopkins did find his balance, for the current incarnation of his Luminarios is the strongest ever. Ex-MC5 bassist Mike Davis has been in the band since '96, and Hopkins' longtime pal Stefan George, a noted Tucson solo artist in his own right, lends his virtuoso skills to electric lap steel, acoustic guitar and keyboards. (The drum kit remains a bit of a revolving seat, but Tom Cook, of Minneapolis' Magnolias, generally rounds out the touring lineup; for the upcoming Phoenix gig, Tucson jazzman Jim Pavett will be filling in.)
"The Luminarios have gone through a lot of changes, and now I think that change has been a good thing," says Hopkins. "It makes you flexible. And these guys, I can't say enough about them. Mike, as a friend and a musical support guy, I'm just fortunate to have him. He's from that whole Detroit scene, so he'd like nothing better than to play just heavy garage rock all the time, yet he understands that I need to keep things varied. He's really been there. Stefan, too, whom I've known for a long time, has given me a lot of support over the years. It's not always easy playing in my band, but I think they enjoy the music. This band is about cutting loose, and as we improvise a lot when we're onstage -- they do get to show off."
With the release of the new Luminarios album Devolver, Hopkins also has an unqualified winner. The CD fairly bursts with texture and nuance, from chiming, hi-nrg rockers that recall both the Rubies and Tom Petty, extended cosmic cowboy psychedelic jams, to elaborately layered acoustic-electric atmospheres and gentle Spanish-flavored balladry; worth noting is a limited-edition bonus which includes some live cuts and covers of Neil Young and Gene Clark. As a vocalist, too, Hopkins has finally come into his own, singing with a newfound confidence that serves the material well. (He remains fond of sharing the spotlight: The album's unexpected emotional centerpiece is a lush violin/guitar number titled "Sincero Amor," which features Paraguayan vocalist Concepcion Romero, a friend of Hopkins from his '80s stint in the Peace Corps, crooning in his native language.)
In a sense, Hopkins has come full circle with Devolver, and that's a source of great contentment for him:
"It's not like I'm learning to sing anymore. I've finally found my voice as a singer; we've toned things down a bit and don't play as loud. Not every song is a 'rock' song. [laughing] Maybe after six or seven records I've finally learned how to 'get it' a little better! The musicians I'm with are better, and I think the songs are better, too. Now, I think in terms of making a record as diverse as possible. But it's taken this long to get to that point, and in a lot of ways, yeah, this might be the record I'd been wanting to do all along."
The Luminarios just returned from a six-week tour of Europe. It was Hopkins' seventh venture overseas, and his inroads in that market have charted a steady progression. For the past few years, he has jointly released Luminarios albums with his own San Jacinto label and with Germany's venerable Blue Rose Records, and the partnership has yielded a rising profile.
Noted Austrian music observer/archivist Georg Hammerer followed the group's recent Euro jaunt: "I'd have to say it was their best tour ever. The Luminarios are great performers; you get the impression these guys love playing the show, that it's not a job for them. Rich speaks no German but he has a very good ability to communicate with the audi-ence.
"The main reason for the growing audience is the constant touring; the radio stations over here only play Top 40, so that's the most important way to get known. The band is hot among music insiders here, and the albums are reviewed in the two most important music magazines in Germany, Musik Express and Rolling Stone."
Hopkins agrees that the tour and the growing attention overseas have afforded him the kinds of opportunities that eluded the Sidewinders/Sand Rubies in the States. "People over there really like roots-rock, the guitar bands and the singer-songwriters. It also seems like somebody at those two magazines really likes us, because they always review the records when they come out and it's always favorable. We finally cracked the Rolling Stone Readers' Poll, too, one of those Top 10 lists that appears in the back of each issue."
Despite the European stronghold -- the Luminarios return this summer to play some of the annual outdoor festivals -- Hopkins doesn't intend to ignore the American market. A fall or winter tour of the East Coast is in the planning stages, and word has it that a few U.S. labels have requested copies of Devolver. That's fine with him, but unlike younger musicians these days who misguidedly equate a label deal with artistic validation, Hopkins, who's been through the major label gristmill twice already, understands that patience is indeed a virtue.
"I'm pretty content to let Blue Rose handle the situation for the most part, and I can get enough copies to sell them over here [via Hopkins' Web site, www. sanjacintorecords.com]. For any band, there's a time and place, and things happen for a reason. One thing that happened on this trip was that a promoter from England came over to see us, and it looks like we'll be setting up a tour of England soon. So that's sort of the way it grows, and all you can do as a band is to be there to back it up.
"When Mike and Stefan and I are talking, we just kind of laugh and call ourselves 'the people's band.' We get along really well with the people we've met, and people really, really like us. We're not some inaccessible group that nobody can come up and talk to. That's a pretty good feeling, after all."
Rich Hopkins and the Luminarios are scheduled to perform on Friday, March 31, at the Arizona Roadhouse in Tempe. Showtime is 9 p.m.
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