Success looks good on Tony Lucca. Since the last time he graced a San Francisco stage, he’s been busy. First, he had a good run on NBC’s second season of “The Voice,” making it all the way to the finals with Adam Levine as his coach, and ultimately coming in third. More importantly, though, he showed the world his talent (not to mention grace, as he endured near-nonstop criticism from Christina Aguilera, who he must have somehow offended in another lifetime) and scored a record deal with Adam’s 222 Records. After watching the show all season, I’ve been eagerly awaiting my next chance to see Tony perform. When the day finally rolled around, I was thrilled to show up to Cafe du Nord to see him (last Sunday night), especially upon learning that he had a special guest touring with him: Justin Hopkins, also from last season of “The Voice.” (He was a member of Team Cee-Lo.) Best of all, the two managed to pack this little venue, playing to a spirited, sell-out crowd.
I admit it: when Justin Hopkins first took the stage, I didn’t remember him. It wasn’t even until he mentioned something about “battle rounds” that I realized he must have been a contestant as well, and a quick Google search jogged my memory. But I digress…before his set even began, Justin confessed how proud of himself he was for having an actual printed set list, instead of a handwritten one “on a napkin.” He held it up to show the crowd, with the names of the songs facing himself, revealing a large “GO GIANTS” to the audience, who cheered immediately. The night began with a song called “Try.” Instantly he reminded me of other fantastic voices like Ray LaMontagne or Matt Duke. After the first song, Justin proclaimed that San Francisco was one of his favorite places to play, saying it was “like LA, but better…it’s ‘LA York.'” Next came “Undress You Down,” which Justin said inspired him to make an acoustic live record. He said the song was about a “chick from a Southern family,” the kind that’s really old money. They could, he eventually figured out, only be together if they ran away…which they couldn’t do, because she came from old money.
Next came a gorgeous cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye,” after a quick confession that he’d skipped Buckley’s version on the venue’s playlist earlier that evening to avoid disappointing anyone with his own. “Go” followed, which Justin pointed out was “Go (Fuck Yourself)” according to his setlist, adding “maybe I’ll change the words!” (He did, at the end…adding, “fuck yourself” in a whisper.) He explains that while he considers himself “lucky in love” now, he wasn’t always. “Go” is a song for anyone who’s ever been in a situation that gets “pretty heated.” It was one of my favorites of the his setlist. “Seeing as I only have a few songs left…” Justin began, pausing between songs. “Let’s get drunk!” He explained that he found the du Nord to be “by far the rowdiest yet quietest” crowd so far. “Which makes you the best! San Francisco rules! Go Giants!” Again, the expected cheer roared back. Before the next song, Hopkins told a quick story about a man he’s known all his life who asked him to write a song for his wedding, which he ultimately declined. After the friend’s sister’s wedding, however, he said he was inspired to write a song, adding a whispered “burn!” The song, “Wrap My Arms Around You,” followed, and was predictably lovely.
When he asked “how are we doing on time?” of the venue, I laughed at whoever in the crowd shouted back, “it doesn’t matter!” Justin smiled, saying, “I agree, but it does.” When told he had ten minutes left, he was pleased to announce he could play us thirty-five more songs. “We’re Not Gettin’ Any Younger” came next, which was written for his late grandfather, who passed the night his battle aired on “The Voice.” Justin dedicated the song to him, saying simply: “This one’s for you, pops…wherever you are.” For his next song, Hopkins was joined onstage by drummer Nick, guitarist Steve (the tour’s manager), and Tony Lucca on bass. The song, “Love on the Radio,” is Justin’s current single, and is as catchy as a tune with such a name ought to be. The set closed with “Fighting the Tide,” which Justin sent out to “all you difficult girls…” who never make it easy on the men, “like a blind man playin’ on a Rubik’s cube, you’ll never be done.” Brilliant.
Between Justin and Tony’s sets, I couldn’t help but notice a few distinct differences in audience for Tony’s shows pre- and post-“Voice.” Besides the fact that the show was sold out, I noticed a good deal more men in the crowd than I’d ever seen before, and…forgive me, but I counted at least four or five in hats similar to those I’ve seen Tony wear many a night. Coincidence? I’ll never know. Anyway, the show began with one of Tony’s cover songs from “The Voice,” the Heavy’s “How You Like Me Now?” Immediately, the tone for the rest of the evening was set. This is Tony Lucca 2.0: the same as he’s always been, but with a little more edge and attitude, and better than ever. “Y’all are having a damn good time tonight, aren’t ya?” He asked. “I’m happy to join you!” Next came “Time and Time Again,” and then what he proclaimed to be a “wine sippin’ song,” which was “Like Love.”
“Suffice it to say it’s damn good to be back in San Francisco at the du Nord,” Tony declared. He explained that months ago, during planning, management kept telling him that something was “going on” in San Francisco. As a result, he’d been looking forward to the show for a while, calling his SF fan base “ridiculously good over the years,” from Disney days, So Satisfied and So Far (1991-95, 1997 and 2001, respectively) all the way up to “The Voice.” Having people come up to him on the street and tell him they voted for him, asking what it’s like to work with Adam Levine, or, inevitably, “what’s up with Christina Aguilera?!” was all sort of fantastic if surreal, Lucca explains. “I honestly have no idea,” he admits to the last question. But just being a songwriter, he adds, “hell if I’m gonna let shit like that just blow over without writing a song about it!” The next song, which remains for me untitled, was dedicated to “Team Xtina!” The lyrics include lines like “don’t know what I ever done to you” and brilliantly, “you don’t know me from Adam,” and a repeated mention of a “jealous heart.” The truth here is easy for me to admit: I’ve known Tony Lucca for years, and never have I been more proud than I was in that moment, listening to his lyrical standing up for himself and telling off a self-important pop princess with a bad attitude. It was fantastic, and he ended it saying, “of course…no hard feelings.”
Tony continues to talk about the voice, and Christina, explaining that in an interview after one show, a member of the press asked a “hypothetical” scenario: “you’re waiting for an elevator, the doors open, and Christina’s inside. Do you get in?” Tony laughs, pauses, and admits, “I’d probably wait for the next one…” The very next day, of course, the headline reads: “TONY LUCCA WOULDN’T EVEN RIDE IN THE SAME ELEVATOR WITH CHRISTINA AGUILERA. THE BATTLE RAGES ON.” Cue eye rolling singer-songwriter. Next came “Anchored,” and then Tony asked the crowd who was fired up for the third and final Presidential debate. When the crowd started cheering back “Go Giants!” again, Tony chastised, “don’t get too fired up about your Giants!” I’m not sure whether it was because his wife is from St. Louis, or because he finds political awareness important, or likely both. He went on to say that he’d learned early on in his career not to get too political, which might apply to sports too? The next song was written last time a Presidential election rolled around, and was one of his best (in my opinion, at least), “Close Enough.” It bears noting that over the years, the lyrics have been subtly changed a time or two to remain current. For example, they originally said “soldier’s on his way off to Baghdad yet again” to “…Afghanistan again,” and there have been three different lyrics where Lucca now sings “hypocrites on both sides of the aisle…” Clever. It’s very clever to update a politically-charged song so that it stays relevant. It was fantastic, and no one was shouting about the Giants when it was over. The next song was a new one, another I didn’t catch the name of, but it was dedicated to his lovely wife Rachel, who was able to join him for part of the tour (San Francisco being her last night before she had to go home). The lyrics I caught repeating may very well be its title, “need your love tonight.” Tony said he hopes it’ll be on his album on 222 Records.
“Did anyone scratch their heads when I decided to go on ‘The Voice’ thinking I was selling out?” Tony asked the crowd. “We love you no matter what!” Someone called back. “I feel that, so thank you.” In a movie of Tony’s life, he says, Ryan Gosling (another super-successful alum from Tony’s Disney days) should play him, adding cheekily, “he might be good looking enough.” In his biography, Tony jokes, would be a chapter about “the day Adam Levine brought me into his trailer to convince me to sing a Britney Spears song.” Of course, the audience is very excited to hear Tony’s rocked-out, smart-assed, sexy cover of “Baby One More Time,” and the whole room sings along. As the song ends, an older gentleman near the front says something about being “very surprised” to hear Tony singing a Britney Spears song. “Anyone else have anything they want to share while we’re sharing?” Tony asks good-naturedly, and the crowd laughs. Moments later, a venue employee ushers the man away, though it’s unclear what exactly has transpired. Crowd favorite “Death of Me” came next, with the audience singing a whole chorus without Tony – awesome.
Next Tony took us “allllll the way back,” to “It’s You” (from his 1997 album Strong Words, Softly Spoken). “Last time I was here was with TFDI…how fun is that shit, man?” Tony asked, and the room was happy to cheer back their agreement. “True Story” came next, and when he got to the part that goes “left my high school sweetheart when I realized I could…she became a movie star, I took to sleepin’ in my car, still singin’ songs about her to this day,” Tony added a “God bless you, Miss Russell!” and several girls in the crowd gushed, “awwwww,” causing Lucca to nearly lose his place in the song, laughing, calling it “the cutest thing ever. Another old song came next, this time “Bad Guy,” which was especially enjoyable as I’ve never heard it sung live before. “Fight Song” came next, and then Lucca said, “guys, this is crazy! It’s awesome and rowdy, and then whoosh – it’s quiet. You don’t wanna miss anything!” Tony’s cover of Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble” followed, which many will remember as his audition song for “The Voice.” Next came “Devil Town,” and then one “about a troubled young man from Huntsville Alabama,” which was the YouTube hit “Ode to Antoine Dodson.”
Justin Hopkins then joined the rest of the band onstage for “Pretty Things” and then “Foxy Jane” with its typical-of-late jam session into a bit of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” which ended the initial set. After about thirty seconds, the band returned for its encore, consisting of Lucca’s delicious cover of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems.” There are so many things I can say about this show, and this man, and his music, that I love, but I really keep coming back to a cheesy analogy I hastily typed in my notes that night: Tony Lucca’s music is like a fireplace. Sometimes it’s romantic, sometimes it’s solitary. It’s always comforting, and it starts out nice and warm. The longer you sit there and enjoy, however, the hotter it gets. And that’s why I’ll always come back for more.