Keeping a band together can be difficult. Egos collide, people grow apart and life’s responsibilities often intrude on musical harmony. But Manchester roots rockers Lichen (pronounced ‘liken’) managed to last three decades and is still going strong.
There’s one small exception, however. “The drum chair is the hot seat,” says Lichen co-founder John Zevos. “Bill’s been with us for 23 years — we call him the new guy.”
The band — Zevos on guitar, mandolin, and vocals, his wife Diane on keyboards and vocals, bass player Charlie Windhausen and drummer Bill McLaughlin — will mark their three-decade anniversary with an outdoor show Saturday, Sept. 3, at Manchester’s Ukrainian American Citizens Club.
A long list of guests, musicians who’ve played with the band over the years, will join in.
“At the end, it’s just going to be one big jam session,” Zevos says. That’s fitting, as Lichen’s sweet spot is covering groups like the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers and Little Feat.
Fate almost kept Lichen from ever becoming a band.
Zevos and Windhausen met in middle school.
“We were in seventh-grade homeroom at South Side in Manchester,” Zevos says. They bonded around music, attending shows together, and formed their first band in the summer before their senior year.
At that point, the two made a promise to always play music together.
Upon graduation, Zevos, Windhausen and three other friends piled into a car and drove west. They stopped in Flagstaff, Ariz., eventually ending up in San Diego, where Zevos met his future wife. Diane was also a Manchester native, though they hadn’t known each other before then.
They quickly formed a band.
“We were playing and rehearsing all the time. It was a lot of fun,” Zevos says. “But I came home for a two-week vacation, and my father suddenly passed away.”
His mother asked him to stay, and Zevos arranged for his belongings to be shipped from California. At that point, he called his band mates to tell them the music was probably over: “I said, ‘I can’t ask you guys to come back, but I’m not coming back.’ I felt lucky when they said they wanted to.”
Among the peaks of Lichen’s long run was a night backing Bo Diddley, the result of winning a Bo Needs A Band contest staged by Rock 101. “It was a full-on battle of band for three weeks,” Zevos says. “We won, and two days later the club where the show was supposed to happen was padlocked.”
Fortunately, another venue was found, though playing with the rock legend was an adventure. Diddley arrived 30 minutes before show time and didn’t provide a set list.
“You can’t figure out what he’s playing because he tunes the guitar different; he wouldn’t even tell us the songs, he’d just launch into it,” Zevos says. “I’d yell out to everybody what key it was in and away we’d go. He said we were going to play an hour and we did two, so he must have liked it enough.”
Other highlights include opening for NRBQ — “our drummer has seen them over 100 times and he got to play their drum set,” Zevos says — and a double bill with mandolin player Barry Mitterhof’s band Silk City that ended in a rousing jam session.
The anniversary celebration will be the band’s 1,521st show, Zevos says. Over the years, Lichen made a couple of albums — a studio record of originals and a live disc in the 1980s. But mostly their run has been one of steady, dependable motion unheard of for a local band — or most of the venues they played, for that matter.
“We performed every week for 19 years in Bedford,” Zevos says. “The place had four different names when we played there — The Lamplighter, La Cantina, O’Donnell’s Irish Tavern, and Slammers.” The restaurant/bar closed permanently in May.
The experience hasn’t been without challenges, says Zevos, who also teaches music at Timberlane High School. “We all have day jobs,” he says with a laugh. “When the kids were little it was tough; we had to bring them to my wife’s mother’s house and pick them up in the middle of the night. We just love playing together.”
The band received a reminder of the benefits after they performed at a friend’s wedding in July.
“Someone who had just seen us for the first time that day remarked what a nice bunch of friends the groom had,” remembers Zevos. “Our old friend said, ‘We’re all friends because of them’ — and he pointed to us as we were packing. “When I thought about it later, I realized that he was right. Most of these people had met at our shows and made lifelong connections. I think that’s pretty cool.”
That’s why, when asked to name the best moment of Lichen’s 30 years together, John Zevos doesn’t point to a specific night, place or song.
“What’s the high point? That it’s still going and I don’t see it stopping.”