Nil Lara

Anybody who was around during the South Beach boom of the early Nineties will remember Nil Lara, and the incendiary shows he put on — virtually every week, it seemed — at the legendary and now-defunct Stephen Talkhouse. A Cuban-American who spent much of his childhood in Venezuela, Lara led a powerful six-piece band through epic sets that left him, his bandmates, and the crowd drenched in sweat. His songs were raw and anthemic, often based on Cuban or Venezuelan folkloric traditions, but with joyous nods to everyone from Stevie Wonder to Pink Floyd.

Lara released a fantastic seven-song EP on his own label, Beluga Blue, in 1994. Then the bigs came calling. Two years later he signed to Metro Blue and released a self-titled debut produced by Lara and veteran engineer/producer Susan Rodgers. All us Nilheads figured the guy would go national in about three seconds flat. He had it all: the melodic knack, the stage presence, and a band that knew how to throw a serious party.

Ah, the vagaries of the modern market. For reasons that still have us scratching our heads, Lara never quite went viral. His major-label debut was "critically lauded" (that's code for: sold like shit). He toured widely with a stripped-down band. His songs appeared in numerous TV and movie soundtracks. But somehow he never quite broke. At least not as big as he deserved.

Fortunately Lara has always been more interested in making his music than promoting it. He's continued to turn out fabulous songs, and to play the occasional live show. His latests discs, released simultaneously in 2004, are Da and Testimony. Both are radiant albums, full of the sort of songs that, with any justice (or maybe a little well-placed payola), would be big, fat radio hits. The best example is probably "Never Listen," an irresistible slab of soul/pop driven by a delicious guitar riff.

But the past is best left where it is. The present is what matters. And the present offers us the following gift: Nil Lara at the Transit Lounge, playing a free show, no less. Do yourself the favor: Clear the calendar, dust off your dancing shoes, and prepare for your next obsession.

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Steven Almond

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