“I think it fits the mood,” Lucero frontman
Ben Nichols said as he announced the
band was just about to play “Wasted” for the
first time in six months. Though the actual
contents of the song and the condition he
applied to it in front of the post-Christmas
crowd at Ziggy’s last Tuesday night differed
fundamentally, only the immediate context
mattered. More than an hour into their
headlining set, the scraggly, trucker-hat- and
checkered-shirt-adorned Nichols had been
on the receiving end of more shots than the
local snitch, and more were on the way.
You have to give the Memphis-bred country-punks credit — the band sticks with what they know will resonate with their motley fan base. The country pokes get down with the good drinking songs, the paeans to heartbreak and hard living resonate with the No Depression crowd, and the overgrown hardcore kids just seem to dig all the tattoos. 2009’s 1372 Overton Park was filled with Muscle Shoals revivalist tunes like the boot-stomping boogie of “The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo,” twang-laden tearjerkers like “Can’t Feel a Thing” and the Springsteen-channeling “Hey Darlin’, Do You Gamble?” Of course, they weren’t the first punks to retro-fit country into their aesthetic — Jason Isbell had already brought horns into the equation before Lucero thought of it — but their mash-up of E Street soul, blue-collar attitude, unconventional guitar chords and exacting execution casts as wide a net as any. From the sounds of it, the band is headed ever deeper into that direction.
The band’s winter tour has largely been a prelude to their next album, Women & Work, and based on the new selections Lucero brought to the Ziggy’s crowd, the subject matter may not be getting an overhaul, but the band is inching closer to a more devout country sound. Hints of future sounds were heard in Nichol’s stripped down 2009 solo release The Last Pale Light in the West, but may not be fully realized until the new album’s March 2012 issuing. Their performance of the album’s title track evoked the fiery honky tonk of the Derailers with exceptional presence by the burly guitarist Brian Venable, while the tenuously titled “On My Way Downtown” with its big, brassy punctuation calls forth the great Eddie Floyd. Of course, their 25-plus song set touched on the older four-piece arrangements as well. The old sad ones like “I’ll Just Fall” and “My Best Girl” found it hard to make use of the two-man horn section, but the response from the crowd was evident regardless as the latter’s guitar break brought whiskey glasses to the air and high fives all around.
Lucero’s set was markedly light on the balls-out, fist-pumping rockers that marked their last work as a quartet, however. The all-audience scream-along “Nights Like These” was like a shiv to the ribs amidst the hazy “It Gets Worse at Night” and the sprawling epic “Here at the Starlite.” Yet, the gravel-voiced Nichols has a way of imbuing every song with a disarming presence that makes them feel bigger and more urgent than they would appear as notes on a page. “I Can’t Feel a Thing” bristled with grungy angst amidst a languid arrangement, but it was his rusty growl and not the horns and pedal steel that forged the connection to the shot-swilling audience.