Memphis’s Lucero Plays Three Nights at Slim’s

Nov. 18, 2014
Slim’s, San Francisco

“If I live through this,” said Ben Nichols, “it’s going to be awesome.”

The lead singer and guitarist of the very much from Memphis country rock band Lucero referred to the band’s three-night booking (without any supporting acts) at the SoMa venue Slim’s, part of the band’s “By the Seat of Our Pants” tour. Friday night was the first of the three.

Formed in Memphis in 1998, Lucero is relentlessly productive – they’ve made 11 albums in 12 years, and they’ve done numerous side projects, including two contributions to the soundtrack of the 2012 film Mud,  which starred Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, and Sam Shepard; it was written and directed by Ben Nichols’ brother Jeff.

They also seem to be relentlessly on tour. If Friday night was an accurate yardstick, the Friday-Saturday-Sunday booking was very necessary to accommodate the band’s passionate San Franciscan advocates. Lucero attracts a curious crowd – all ages (I gauged the oldest attendee to be aged 73 and the youngest to be aged 6), and lots of flannel shirts (but not flannel shirts purchased dearly from American Apparel, or curatorially from Goodwill – flannel shirts that likely came in a pack of three), and no shyness about the format or register of enthusiasm for the band on the stage. Lucero didn’t completely sell out all three nights, but Friday’s crowd was extremely glad to have them there, and the gladness manifested in at least one failed but valiant attempt to instigate a mid-floor mosh pit.

The band is a bit of a motley crew, united by a fierce commitment to tattoos (no fewer than 80 percent of non-facial visible skin was inked). Nichols is limber, with a salesman’s good looks and a gravelly smoker’s voice (think a cheerful Tom Waits), and all of the other members are visual variants of guys you’d be both grateful and scared to see pull over if your car broke down on the highway. They could also, as a group, illustrate an instructional chart showing the recent history of the more obscure facial hairstyles (mutton chops, beard ponytails).

The set was in two parts – the first, acoustic (or, as Nichols put it, “sad sad songs”), the second, electric. Throughout, Nichols shot whiskey with disingenuous self-effacement.

The acoustic set featured, indeed, a lot of sad sad songs (some with titles as unsubtle as “Hello Sadness”), many of them chronicling romantic woe and doing so formulaically but earnestly, and with respect to the formula’s origins. It was a touching set to see, and in its own right not calculating at all, but it did seem like a setup strategy to make the electric set seem even more lively. And it was successful – when the band returned after a break and began the well-known riff of “On the Way Downtown,” it was for whetted appetites.

I suspect this is a band that evokes radically different vibes for every listener (I read them as the sort of band a group of Southern fraternity members goes to see in Atlanta during spring formal) but this isn’t to say their music is formless – just remarkably multivocal. At the same time, they’re intensely loyal to locality, both to Tennessee (which gets loads of lyrical playing time) and to the venue they happen to be playing, engaging with their audience in a way seeming to seek connection rather than confirmation.

They also welcome their crowd’s input. Halfway through the electric set, Nichols gave the audience a choice: a song about strip clubs, or a song about tattoos? It was heartening to hear us choose tattoos.


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