His major-label debut has been out for a bit more than two months now, inspiring numerous hosannas in places such as Billboard and the New York Times, and yet Nil Lara has hardly entered the realm of the comfy rock star. Even before his self-titled album on Metro Blue was released in March, Lara and his three-piece band were on the road eating asphalt and slogging through the Northeast during what's now referred to as the Blizzard of '96. And not long after you read this, the group will once again be hauling down the endless gray ribbon in a cramped van for another month of road shows. They aren't traveling with roadies, fixers, or technicians. It's just Lara, guitarist Andrew Yeomanson, drummer David Goodstein, bassist Phil McArthur, and Jesus Lara, Nil's cousin and co-manager A lugging equipment, taking turns driving, and selling CDs and tapes after shows. Lara likes to describe their tours as "very Fugazi," referring to the staunch and fiercely independent D.C. punk group.
"This is all very punk rock, very do-it-yourself," says Lara, in town for a short tour break. "There's no money, no budget. It's all driving from one place to another. You get in the van in the morning, load up all your shit, and just go, go, go. There are no prima donnas. We're doing all this ourselves. We all do some driving. It's not that complicated. I can't complain. We get to see the whole United States. We did the whole winter thing [in February] and now we get to go back there next month and see the trees and everything changing. It's just beautiful."
Lara and group have been hitting small clubs as headliners as well as opening shows for groups such as Ben Harper and Leftover Salmon and playing a few outdoor festivals. One such event -- a mid-May concert in Rochester, New York, with Barenaked Ladies -- placed the band before an audience of about 7000. "It was just amazing," Lara recalls. "As soon as the gates opened, all these kids rushed to the front of the stage, so even if they don't know you, they're right there in front of your face. You can really feel the energy of all these kids liking what you're doing. And we're carrying our CD with us and we sell 20 here, 30 there, maybe 10 or so at smaller clubs. We're getting it out there little by little, which is how it all starts."
Lara will be spending the summer touring, including two weeks supporting funk chanteuse/bassist Me'Shell NdegeOcello and some Eastern dates opening for Cowboy Junkies. He's also been added to nine northern dates for this year's H.O.R.D.E. tour, the multiartist, neohippie caravan led each year by Blues Traveler, which in the past has brought considerable audience exposure to new acts and has broken several groups, including the Dave Matthews Band, to whom Lara has, somewhat mysteriously, been compared in publications such as Hits and Gavin. "I don't hear it musically," Lara says of the comparisons. "Maybe it's more in the approach of how they did stuff themselves -- the grassroots idea of just going out there and doing what you love. 'Cause that's what we've been doing."
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In response to the mountain of favorable press the album has received, radio has begun to pick up on the disc, a gripping eleven-song fusion of Cuban son, guajira, and rock and roll, with funk flourishes and Lara's outstanding work on the electric tres (a variation on a Cuban guitar, featuring three pairs of strings, that when cranked through an amp sounds like a twelve-string Rickenbacker from hell). "Bleeding," the first single from Nil Lara, was recently shipped to Adult Album Alternative formats. In less than a week the song had been picked up by twelve stations across the U.S., debuting at Number 27 on the College Music Journal's AAA chart, Number 44 at Gavin's, and Number 7 on Gavin's noncommercial radio chart -- a respectable showing by any standard. The album has not yet appeared on the Billboard Top 200 chart, and a label representative for Capitol A--Metro Blue's distributor -- would not release sales figures for the album, noting only that the label was "happy with the numbers."
Lara, however, insists the ratings and sales figures don't really mean much to him. "To me none of that matters," he claims. "It's not about numbers. It's about moving people, and that's what we're doing by staying on the road and playing. That's the shit, you know? Going out and playing your heart out, like it's the last time you're ever going to play again. That's all that really matters."
New Times continues its search for a few good writers. Latin music writers, that is. Specifically, writers who can put together entertaining and well-written features, reviews, and essays covering the ins and outs of the city's Latin music scene. Solid English-writing skills are a must, and it would really help if you're bilingual. We need someone who can write with clarity, authority, and insight about the wide range of Latino sounds: from young rock en espanol acts to Afro-Cuban jazz legends both past and present. In other words, the deeper your music knowledge, the better.
If this is you, prove it. Send your three best published clips -- in English -- along with a resume and some story ideas to my attention at New Times, Box 011591, Miami, FL 33101. I'll send back your clips if you enclose a stamped and self-addressed envelope; otherwise your stuff will be filed away in a very special place. And please, please, I beg of one and all, no phone calls. Thank you.