Lucero – True grit
Lucero singer Ben Nichols is calling from the van as he and the band travel east on Interstate 80 through New Jersey. They’re leaving New York City (where they played a string of gigs he describes as a “chaotic brawl”) and heading to Akron, Ohio, for a show the following night. At the tail end of a 200-show tour for their new album, Tennessee, Nichols sounds haggard, though a romance for his own road-weariness creeps into his voice. When he grumbles about “endless bars, beer, and van life,” I don’t entirely believe him.
I’d seen Lucero play a month before, at the Temple Bar in Santa Monica, California. The night before, they’d played in “some strip mall in Vegas,” Nichols says. “The place was between a Vietnamese hair salon and a dollar store. And it was dead until these bikers showed up. They were crazy kids. Girls spilling beer all over themselves. Chairs getting thrown.”
The ambience at the Temple Bar is wholly unlike the one in Las Vegas. A venue that usually hosts hip-hop and reggae acts, the Temple Bar is furnished with plush chairs, statues of Buddha, and smoking incense-burners. Before the show, I corner Nichols at a table, ask him a few questions, and discover he’s slightly unsettled. This is Lucero’s first performance in California, and the crowd is lean and ostensibly of a different musical sensibility.
But when Nichols straps on his guitar, throws off his hat, rolls up his sleeves, and begins singing with a voice that is warm, squalid, and wincingly vulnerable all at the same time, the non-country crowd is suddenly rapt. If sheer grit is your yardstick when it comes to live music, then few are better than Lucero.
Nichols sings the first song without pretense or filter,and it is heartbreaking. The band then launches into a charismatically ragged version of “All Sewn Up”, a cut off their eponymous 2001 debut album that gives Nichols ample room to let his deceptively large voice loose. The look on his face is one of manic helplessness.
Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi All Stars produced that first record as well as Lucero’s follow-up, Tennessee (released in September on Madjack Records). On the first album, Lucero delivered punk-spare, straight-shooting, clean melodic hurt. On Tennessee, they’ve found a subtler and more textured sound, with more patient and ambitious instrumentation from Brian Venable (guitar, lap steel, dobro), John C. Stubblefield (upright and electric bass), and Roy Berry (drums).
At the center remains Nichols’ voice. On the new record, it’s at once raspier and more delicate than it was on the first. This is most evident on “Darby’s Song”, in which Nichols moves from a go-for-broke howl that verges on shattering its own scaffolding to a surprisingly unwrinkled croon. Gestures toward quietude such as this imbue Tennessee with a winning dynamic grace.
After Ohio, Lucero was headed home to Memphis for a month-long hiatus. They live together in a warehouse that once functioned as Elvis Presley’s karate dojo. The band is eager to rest — but also eager to get back to making music. They’re thinking even of making the next album in the warehouse. “The third record,” Ben tentatively hazards, “will not be about heartbreak, drunken and wasted youth.”
Just before our phone conversation ends, Lucero’s van swerves in a nearby lane and narrowly escapes a crash. Now they’re on the wrong highway. But when Nichols reports the near-wreck, he sounds almost proud, as if he and the band just survived another of the road’s rites of passage.