I don’t know what you did with the wonderful weather this weekend—whether you raced Nice Rides with your significant other around Lake Calhoun, shotgunned Premiums on the Stone Arch Bridge, or sat in the kiddie pool you blew up behind your garage and devoured the last book in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy—Fifty Shades of Freed—while your kids took turns jumping off the roof with parachutes fashioned from the electric blankets they found in the crawlspace.
Twice I saw live Ben Nichols of Lucero play the guitar he’d slung over his shoulder with clothesline. Once on Saturday at a St. Jude benefit hosted in Grumpy’s NE and then on Sunday in a sold out 7th Street Entry, while outside the rain came down.
Live’s the ideal way to listen to Nichols or his band, Lucero. Their evolving fusion of rock and roll, punk, and country thrives raw and in the wild—like some magical strain of yeast for a palate-breaking beer. It’s wild music after all, and Nichols has written tracks equally accessable for hipsters as for my dad, as at home on stage at the Grand Ole Opry as in the dark of Washington D.C.’s legendary Black Cat.
Saturday’s benefit was a marathon run in a small bar, replete with beer specials and the Scratch food truck, both necessary for those in attendance to power through a massive, ongoing raffle, two openers, and Nichols’ 2 ½ hour set. (At 6:30pm-ish he bit into a sandwich from Scratch and commented on the intimacy of the show. As I remember it: “This is a little bit like post-coitus. Nope—exactly. Yep.”) With a portion of all proceeds going to St. Jude, the organizer posted to the event’s Facebook page Tuesday that all together $3,000 was raised. I can only imagine how much came from beer.
Where Saturday was a smaller crowd filled with friends and Grumpy’s regulars and felt like Nichols was just messing around in a buddy’s living room—an incredible experience I hope to repeat next year—Sunday at 7th Street Entry was a dynamic performance for the masses.
From the fantastically drunk dude down front-and-center to the trucker hat-cutoff t-shirt-Carhartt work pants fellows next to me—the capacity Entry crowd fawned for all 90ish minutes. Nichols picked and strummed through acoustic arrangements of Lucero songs, a couple covers, and tracks from his lone solo EP The Last Pale Light in the West. The last is influenced by Cormac McCarthy’s seminal 1985 Western Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West, a novel about a band of men scalping Indians in the United States–Mexico borderlands. One of the great American books.
The crowd shouted for their favorite Lucero songs, “The War,” “Sixteen,” “Hold Fast,” and so on, which seemed to be a large part of how he cobbled together the incredible performance. Though for the “Anjalee” request, which on the Nobody’s Darlings’ version is filled with tube-aided hammers and a howling solo, he said, “That’s not happening. No need to string you along. Just ain’t happening.”
And when he shoots you down or calls you out for being fantastically drunk with his smile—the one that rounds out his cheekbones and makes him look fifteen years younger than his 37—how could you be upset? He smiled after each song on Sunday, when the whole 7th Street crowd was losing their minds, and it almost seemed like he’d never received applause before, let alone such universal praise. It’s honest I bet, but I’m sure also practiced.
The takeaway: He’s a total charmer. And isn’t that how all the best bad boys are?
His set spanned Lucero’s 11-year catalog—from Lucero to the three-month-old Women & Work. Two standouts from the latest he played, “Women & Work” and “It May Be Too Late,” are representative of an album heavily influenced by Memphis’ Sun scene and give you the itch to dance. The first is a grind-your-toe-into-the-ground-and-swivel-your-hips. The second is a set-down-your-drink-and-corral-your-significant-other-or-the-person-by-the-bar-you’ve-been-eyeing-between-songs-and-dance-like-you-were-at-your-parents’-homecoming.
Fan-favorite covers of The Replacements’ “If You Were Only Lonely” and Jawbreaker’s “Kiss the Bottle” only got his fans more excited.
If you haven’t noticed from the song titles, there are some common themes in Nichols’ song writing that have on occasion caught him flack from reviewers like Pitchfork, though that flack usually still comes with a good review. I don’t really take issue with reoccurrence of women and drinking in his and Lucero’s songs. It’s part of the mystique, one he often captures so vividly that I smell the motorcycle exhaust and feel the heartache in my own chest.
I mentioned it was a dynamic show so aside from a laundry list of my favorites and his worth-the-price-of-admission stage banter, two of the high points were the most somber.
The first came in “Shelter,” a song Nichols’ wrote for his brother’s film, Take Shelter (the soundtrack version is here). Perhaps it’s come with playing the song live that Nichols found how to exploit the song’s emotional peaks and valleys, particularly in the line, “All I know’s to keep you close.” He squeezed so much more out of it on Sunday and had us all holding “cloooooose” in our minds long after the song ended. It was like he’d shifted to another gear, something similar to the first time I saw Ryan Bingham play “The Weary Kind.”
Opener John Swardson had a story about Nichols and Lucero from the South By Southwest Festival—when Lucero took stage, all the other bands stopped what they were doing and climbed on top their buses to watch the band, something that hadn’t happened for any other performance.
For all the songs about cut-up and carousing, there’s an incredible attention paid to craft and performance that sets Nichols ahead of many of his peers. It’s as cerebral as it is from-the-gut—though I wonder if he and Lucero would quick to admit that.
The second somber song that rearranged things in my mind was the closer, “Mom,” also the last track from the massive 1372 Overton Park. It’s a letter from a band of brothers to their mother, assuring her despite their past failings and those sure to come, she gave them everything they needed.
Mama, there’s times where we’ll make some mistakesWe know how you’ve worked and we know how you’ve prayed
So don’t you think twice about where we are tonight
No matter what becomes of us
You gave us enough
Know that we’ve tried
Two lines into “Mom” the Entry fell silent and slowly, ever so slowly, the voices rose with Nichols’ own and carried us out into the night—into its cool, cleansing rain and a city waiting for Monday’s new beginning.
Baby Grant Johnson
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