To visit Memphis, hell, to see The Blind Side, is to experience a great Southern town with a lot of warts. Situated on the banks of the titanic Mississippi River, Memphis straddles Tennessee and Arkansas with messy abandon. Stax and Sun Records, Booker T and the MGs, Elvis, Cash, early Aretha, Carla Thomas, shit, Justin Timberlake. Memphis, like Muscle Shoals, Austin, or Nashville, is a complicated crossroads that yields the bad bits of our world in one breath, and gives up the great beauty of our planet in the next.
“She walks like a panther, but she’s fallin’ apart,” sings Ben Nichols on one of my favorite songs in Memphis-bred Lucero’s recent catalog, “Juniper.” That lyric could describe the soul of most great songwriters. Ain’t that exactly what you think Townes Van Zandt and Hank Williams were going through? The great Steve Earle has said as much in more than one forum. Lucero’s stints in Ponte Vedra and Orlando betrayed that trend. They walked in like a panther, but managed to add swelling swagger to each of three performances.
Seventeen years of fandom is a lot ask, especially for a band as distinct as Lucero. Perhaps, fortunately, the band has matured at about the same rate as us thirty-somethings who have been along for the ride. Early on, they were singing about getting wasted and chasing girls. Now they’re waxing philosophical about catching said girls and trying to hang on, getting just drunk enough for social acceptability, and reconciling all of the above.
Lucero is aging like a well-maintained Schwinn. A band keeping its rock n’ roll edge while continuing to mature. The new record, All a Man Should Do, is less spit and piss, more a group of musicians embracing growing up. Doing so is no small feat, especially for an outfit facing constant temptation to keep doing what made them successful.
Ponte Vedra Concert Hall was the first of a handful of perfectly curated venues to host Lucero in Florida. “On this tour we’re opening for ourselves, which is a little ridiculous. But it gives us a chance to play a few quiet ones, and then we’ll come back to rock,” Nichols said with a hint of self-consciousness draped over the confidence for which he is known.
Five years ago, you would have gotten two hours of Lucero kicking in your face. Instead, they offered a series of sets with an underlying common thread of intimacy. The bands that refuse to change get left in the dust of those who step back and take inventory of their relevance. What are you creating? Are you doing so to appease your audience, or because you simply want to create? So be it if the former motivates.
As for Lucero, give them a story about their hometown, a horn or two, and some patience at the piano. Lucero 2015 is a far cry from Lucero circa “Chain Link Fence” or “My Best Girl.” We fell in love back then, and it’s not easy to keep us around for fifteen years. The relationship needs constant cultivation. For them, self-awareness and effort will do the trick.
“Tell all the young outlaws / I’m hanging up my guns,” Nichols sings on the self-aware “Young Outlaws,” from All a Man Should Do — a tune we were treated to more than once over the twelve-hour whirlwind through North and Central Florida. Let’s hope “guns” is not a euphemism for guitars. More likely, he’s a man wholly content with the present moment. A man and a band acknowledging the challenges of keeping everyone’s interest, while continuing to grow as a unit.
The difference between Lucero records is stark. Yet, when played stripped down live, it’s hard to tell from which album each song comes. The first set on this Thursday night was a nice mixture of new songs and the old stuff for which Lucero fans are rabid. “Went Looking for Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles,” “That Much Further West,” and “Texas and Tennessee” were among the tunes played. Horns showed up during the latter, ushering in building energy and blending nicely with the second set.
Lucero shows are an interactive exchange of energy and ideas. There’s no printed souvenir setlist to post on Instagram after the show. Ben takes shouted requests, the kind that come with more confidence as the night progresses. Not all of said requests get fulfilled. When you have more than ten albums, some songs feel like covers after a while.
When we are gone from this world, we can only ask people look back and say we were who we said we were. Ben’s candor about the fact that he does not remember how to play some of his own songs is a perfect example of what we love about Lucero. No pretense, wholly authentic — the most respectable of characteristics.
The band is fully in touch with what their audience came to see, and who those people happen to be. The energy of each night followed a bell curve. Lucero eased us in with stripped down tunes, built the volume of the first set toward its end, flowing into a thunderous second set that wound down toward the end — finally ending with Ben Nichols standing alone, sans instrument, just a plastic cup and his voice.
The next day began early. Copper Rocket Pub in Maitland announced that Ben Nichols would be playing a midday acoustic set Friday afternoon. Copper Rocket is a small venue in an otherwise non-descript strip mall — dark, quiet, perfect for Nichols and a guitar taking requests from the robust for a middle of the afternoon crowd. Some requests, the aforementioned “Juniper” for example, were met with valiant attempt and ultimate abortion. Ben tried to do it alone before ultimately confessing that he did not remember the words. Seventeen years of songs will have that effect.
But this was a special performance. Despite little notice, we enthusiastically filled the tiny room at 1:30 on a weekday.
Nichols stands on the small stage at the Copper Rocket, a little surprised by how many people came out to hang, and humbled by that reality. His set started a little later than scheduled which allowed the room to fill up enough to Nichols-like proportions. From there it became us and Ben. He asks what to play next, we request, he either plays them or promises to bring it with him next time.
Here’s a guy with an enormous following, playing a bar off the beaten path, for free. We were treated to a personal concert in the middle of the day — a full hour of almost exclusively requests from one of the most honest players in the songwriting game. That could have been it, just packed up his guitar and left. Instead, Nichols stuck around shaking hands and posing for photos. All of this ahead of a legendary night of music in downtown Orlando.
St. Paul and the Broken Bones were playing next door Friday night, yet Lucero’s sets were awfully close to sold out. We took in the former at The Beacham before catching the end of Lucero’s first, stripped-down set over at The Social. Again, perfectly booked in The Social, the second set included a lot of the tunes from the night before.
As for Ben’s authenticity, there was nothing canned about his commentary on the atmosphere and the tunes the band was playing. Sure, the set ended once again with Nichols and some keys standing starkly on stage; but this was the third time, I had heard some of the tunes in a twelve-hour period, yet they felt as fresh as the first time I listened to each on record however long ago.
On both nights, Ben wound things down by saying, “This night is about to get sadder, and sadder, and sadder…” In Ponte Vedra folks responded by pushing a girl on stage via crowd surfing wave. At The Social, we chanted “Let’s get sad! Let’s get sad!” Both were beautiful, and each caught Ben off guard. Such is a night (or day, or both) with Lucero.
Friday was packed with incredible shows, but the winds of beautiful performance seemed to be at our backs. It’s crazy how we never rushed, yet failed to miss a thing. Sailor Jerry Rum and the incredible Shows I Go To staff deserves some credit for this stroke of fortune, but there has to be something more at work.
Perhaps all involved are living authentically — mostly honest individuals who also recognize and embrace their faults. Whether we take our inspiration from Lucero, or vice versa, is a question that will not get answered at one of their shows. Instead, energy will be exchanged, social cues heeded, and hearts continually filled.
Check out photos from the Sailor Jerry / Shows I Go To pre-party at Lizzy McCormack’s Irish Pub!
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SIGT MAGAZINE ISSUE #07
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