Words by Scott Recker, photos by Nik Vechery
When you break it down, Lucero is the epitome of a blue-collar band, in the most unpretentious way possible — which, to be certain, is the reason why they’ve never released anything that has sucked. They’ve changed, but never attached to trends. They’ve become less sloppy, but never lost their grit. I’m not sure that, right now, there’s a better way to see direct, impactful rock ’n roll — and they’re not really even a rock ’n roll band. Which brings us to what they are — or more accurately: what they currently sound like — in a live setting. The short answer is: 1) They’ve refined the punk rock side of themselves just enough to be slightly more smooth. 2) They can keep the Memphis soul elements alive without the horns. 3) They still have the urgent, scrappy alt-country dynamic in check enough to make people want to pay $5 for a beer just to throw it on someone they’ve never met. This was all on display last Thursday night, as they kicked off a two-night stand at Headliners.
Ben Nichols isn’t a stranger to getting beer thrown at him. It’s a Lucero concert staple to put a can of beer above your head and flail it around like a jackass. Just watching people do it is half the fun of going to a Lucero show and, usually, it’s harmless enough. But, for a second on Thursday night — about four songs into their set — it looked like someone took it too far, throwing enough beer at frontman Ben Nichols to make him have to stop playing guitar. He kept singing, barely even seemed surprised, pulled out a handkerchief, wiped the dripping PBR off his arm and started playing guitar again. He had every right to be pissed. He wasn’t. Instead, after the song, he addressed being soaked in a way that parallels about every reason there is to like Lucero: “We’re just happy to be alive; we’re just happy to still be playing shows.” They’re borderline rock stars and they still act like they’re your forever grateful friends that strapped on guitars to play their first gig in your parents basement.
Ben Nichols’ voice and Brian Venable’s guitar work may be the two things that define the core of Lucero’s sound, but keys wizard Rick Steff is the glue that holds the band together. When they play without horns, he carries even more weight, and his melodies can be sparkling and slightly soften the song to give it more depth or they can run wild, enhancing that bar-band aesthetic that Lucero thrives on. He’s one of those players that, to realize how integral he is, you have to see the band live. It was certainly evident on Thursday night.
When a band does a two-or-three night stand in a city, it always means you’re going to get some deeper cuts. When the Avett Brothers did three nights in Louisville last fall, they pulled out quite a few rarities. And while Lucero does’t really seem ashamed — or that they’re now better than or above playing — any of the old material, Thursday provided small glimpses into things that live a bit beneath the surface. These days, mainly because of The Walking Dead, “The Last Pale Light In The West,” which is the title track from Nichols’ solo EP, isn’t exactly off the radar of most Lucero junkies, but when they played it on Thursday night, it was a reminder that the rest of the songs on that album, based on characters from the Cormac McCarthy novel “Blood Meridian,” are some of the most underrated diamonds in the rough of the last ten years. Not to mention, the stripped-down nature of the song shows that it doesn’t matter what the era or structure, it seems like nothing fazes the veterans of Lucero.