[27 November 2006]

By Brian Bartels

If the Pogues embody the Jameson-addled anthems of Ireland, Lucero turns the whiskey into bourbon aged in Tennessee oak and chased by a Bud. Their sound is a roll-up-the-sleeves-and-take-a-deep-sniff kind of pure angst. It’s like rain on the windshield as you drive through a cold November morning after a particularly regrettable evening. Raspy-voiced lead man Ben Nichols sings about themes associated with good loving and good drinking—thieves, love, getting drunk, and losing control—in a world where getting into trouble with a lady makes things turn thirsty fast.

The band’s new album is distributed by Liberty and Lament Records, Lucero’s own independent label, which arose after their previous label went belly-up.  Lucero moved one step ahead by shipping the new album out to pre-ordered customers before it was available in record stores. A good move, it allowed their die-hard fan base to get these new songs into their heads faster, and made it easier for them to sing along with every song when the band came through town (and trust me, these fans like to sing along).

On a New York Sunday, Lucero landed in the Lower East Side, facing a crowd well warmed to the band’s blue-collar, 200-shows-a-year work ethic. The Bowery Ballroom’s entrance is a downstairs bar through which you have to pass in order to get to the main event space. I’ve been to dozens of Bowery shows, and, though the bar is always bustling with patrons, the Lucero crowd kept those bartenders especially busy. 

The band took the stage donning grins. Surprisingly, they weren’t drinking anything—odd for guys who, in their music, wear their livers on their sleeves. The craggy whiskeymen wore black, with rolled-up t-shirts, cowboy boots, tattooed arms, and day-old beards. A T-Rex song blasted as the band strapped on their guitars and rolled up their sleeves.  When the music stopped, lead singer Nichols said, “I was enjoying the T-Rex, actually.” 

Bassist John Stubblefield, clad in Johnny Cash’s signature black wardrobe and with his hair slicked back, personified his character by saying something nonsensical into the microphone. The lights dimmed, but there was enough left to catch a geyser of beer spraying the stage five seconds into the first song, and, as the crowds’ fists began pumping, index fingers pointed to the sky.

Nichols’ voice is no less affecting live, his delivery an amalgam of gravel and cigarettes. It’s an instrument itself, and the experience of seeing the guy behind the Oz-like wall of vocals is surreal. I can think of only a few other singers blessed with such distinct tones. 

When the band tore into “Get Us out of Here Tonight,” the sense of communal engagement reached a fever pitch. The tune is a feel-good sing-along, something that Springsteen and the E Street Band could’ve written 20 years ago. Lucero’s consistent comparisons to the New Jersey icons have always been welcomed with open arms, and maybe even catered to: as he sang the song, Nichols was sporting a red bandanna in his back jean pocket, a la Born in the U.S.A

Lucero’s lyrics delve into heartbreak and often feature a speaker resisting the urge to do or say something that will have consequences. The expressions on people’s faces around the club gave the impression that, at some point, everyone there had been burned by heartache and sorrow. Nichols has mentioned in interviews that his lyrics are “staying-up-all-night-and-waiting-for-someone-to-call music.” By the looks of the people waiting to hear more, everyone was aching to get that feeling back. Sometimes the pain really does hurt so good. 

Lucero apply an “awww shucks” lightness to their hard-rocking ways: “Last time we played here, I got so drunk I ended up in Red Hook [a neighborhood forty-five minutes away from Manhattan] crying like a little baby,” said Nichols. “I feel a little more well-behaved tonight.” He paused, humbled. “I think what I meant to say is it’s nice to be back.”

The crowd ate it up, clambering for space near the stage, getting a little rowdy, sure, but doing it with a smile on their faces. Even the ladies were throwing some elbows in the pseudo mosh pit. It’s rare to see such controlled recklessness: people pushed each other with one arm while wrapping the other one around their opponent’s shoulder. On the balcony, a guy danced in place, pumping his fists into the air. A kid climbed onstage for the obligatory dive into the audience, and the supportive, feel-good crowd caught him before he crashed.  (“Thank y’all for catching him,” Nichols commented.)

There’s something inspiring about hipsters colliding near center stage and helping each other. People patted each other on the back while Nichols continued, “Y’all watch out fer each other.” That sentiment continued until a drunk fella got onstage during one of the band’s last songs, dancing around a little and exchanging lead vocals with Nichols before jumping back into the crowd. When the guest singer had returned to the audience, Nichols asked the crowd what the American Idol guy’s name was. The crowd responded, “Simon,” and Nichols said, “Good thing he wasn’t here tonight.”

When he wasn’t leaning on the speakers during a song or two, Stubblefield got another chance to speak, mumbling something like, “Easy bros. You got some superheroes in New York here. We got some talkin’ walkin’ superheroes with us tonight,” followed by gibberish, to which Nichols responded, “I didn’t get that either. Let’s keep going.” And so they did.  There’s no stopping this band, and so it’s fitting that they would finish their set—sans encore—with “Tears Don’t Matter Much,” and cap it by passing around a bottle of Maker’s Mark proclaiming, “Thanks for having us tonight, y’all. We’re Lucero. We don’t play encores. We make last call and then we do shots at the bar.” I’m sure they do, surrounded by a sea of well-wishers. After all, breakin’ up never felt this good

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