It's a Friday night in June on Tucson's Fourth Avenue. The influx of University of Arizona summer-school students hasn't yet begun, so the numerous watering holes that dot the street are playing host mostly to locals. This is the case at one shoebox of a bar called Trolley's, where only a handful of patrons have gathered for a barely announced gig by a new band.
The four musicians are cooking, though.
After warming things up with a couple of ragged, Sixties-ish garage numbers, they ease into a brooding, desert-inspired rocker called "Dirt Town." The song, one of those growing-up-and-getting-out-at-all-costs tunes, bristles from the tension between one guitarist's eerie slide peals and the other's dusky, minor chords. The latter, somewhat familiar guitarist straightens out of his hunch, leans toward the microphone, and begins a fateful tale of a hard-luck white-trash family; the punch line goes, "When times were rough, we used a gun."
The music rises to match the grim lyrics, bass rumbling, drums pounding like an ancient V8 engine, guitars in a competition of mournful, howling energy. And all of this go-for-broke power, this authentic, gut-level Actual Rock Experience despite the almost empty club. Aside from a couple of stool-hugging regulars and the members of opening band Star Crunch, the audience is literally composed of immediate family, one fellow musician and a journalist. A working rehearsal? Hardly. Though this is a young band, there's the comfortable, practiced air of players-who've-been-around up there under the lights.
"That was only our second gig," says the somewhat familiar singer/guitarist/songwriter.
So just who is this man, and just what is this band? It's Rich Hopkins, ex-Sidewinder, ex-Sand Ruby Rich Hopkins, now reborn as a Luminario.
"I just found these guys five weeks ago, so we really are starting from scratch," he explains, lounging next to a Tucson pool a few days later. "It's like I said to each guy, it's going to be hard work. It's not going to be the prettiest situation and I can't guarantee we're gonna be any big success, but I can guarantee we'll get a record out and we will tour."
Hopkins knows a thing or two about guarantees. As a founding member and one-fourth of the Sidewinders (later Sand Rubies), Hopkins surely enjoyed his brush with Arizona and, to a lesser extent, national fame.
That group formed in 1985 and two years later released a homemade album, Cuachal, on Hopkins' then-fledgling San Jacinto Records. (The label has remained busy over the years; it issued the very first recording from the Gin Blossoms, and the recent Psycho Master El by Black Sun Legion has garnered international reviews.) The Sidewinders built their fan base the old-fashioned, pre-MTV "Buzzbin" way, by hitting the national trail previously blazed by such Arizonans as Naked Prey and Green On Red. Ultimately, a joint deal with Mammoth and RCA Records resulted in the college-radio-charting songs "Witchdoctor" and "Auntie Ramos' Pool Hall."
In retrospect it seems that the band had a good shot at pre-empting the Gin Blossoms' later success; while the Sidewinders were less jangly, alternative-pop-oriented than the Tempe chart busters, the winders possessed that same elusive power to connect with an audience.
Hopkins' trademark feedback-cum-power-chord guitar salvos, Dave Slutes' romantic lyrics delivered in his dusky, long-lost tenor, and a seemingly telepathic rhythm section led noted critic Dave Marsh to write that the band had "more sonic balls in the air than the minimalist Neil Young/Crazy Horse, always on the run, throwing moral dilemmas in the listener's face without resolution or cynicism."
Then, as the saying goes, tomorrow hit. While the legal and corporate turmoil that characterized the band from 91 to 93 has been written about at length, here is a brief recap:
The Sidewinders were forced into a name change by a North Carolina bar band called--that's right--Sidewinder. A big-budget album (involving four different producers including Heartbreaker Mike Campbell) recorded for Ensign/Chrysalis was shelved for nearly a year during which time the band's bassist and drummer quit. After Sand Rubies was finally released on a PolyGram imprint label, the touring band was plagued by revolving members and a communication breakdown between Hopkins and Slutes that resulted in Hopkins bailing from his own ship in mid-'93.
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"It wasn't a real band anymore," he admits. "Dave and I had locked it up businesswise, the other guys became hired hands. . . . I was looking for a family. I realized [the band] wasn't it, and that was a harsh reality." Which brings us back to Luminarios, or at least a faux version of the band. Though the Personality Crisis album (recorded during the yearlong lull) was recently released by Germany's Houses in Motion label under the band's name, it's actually a Hopkins solo record featuring various Tucson guest stars.
After the Sand Rubies wound down last year, Hopkins enlisted bassist Jeff Kasanow and drummer Chip Steiner and hit the studio. The trio went in with a few new tunes, a few old tunes and an Animals cover, enough to create a strong CD due for release in August. Exit the studio hands and enter guitarist Joe Rechel, drummer Dan Lynch and bassist Rick "Rusty" Cable, and the Luminarios became a solid, fighting unit. Earlier this year, a single from the studio sessions was released (Tripped" b/w "Hole"), revealing Hopkins' spitfire leads to be some of his best ever. And--for the first time--he steps up to the mike to bellow out the vocals in a warm, elegant rasp.
"To be honest, I was [previously] too chicken shit to sing my own songs," he says. "It was something I really wanted to do, but I was afraid of criticism." Hopkins thinks that by keeping his mouth shut in the Sand Rubies, he dug his own grave. "I'm just the guitar player, I can't sing!'" he says of his old attitude. "But now I'm fighting my way out of it. And when things don't go well, I can still play the guitar!"
After all the years, the brushes with Making It, the business and personal problems, the rock-band-as-family yearnings, where is this musician's head?
"You know, maybe the older you get, you don't need as much ego notoriety," Hopkins says. "To me, it's just cool when you see guys who are together, have that strong band unity. So far, the two gigs we've played I'm just, 'Hey, we're here . . . let's have some fun and rock out.'