Booze featured prominently throughout the night, plentiful at the bar and in Lucero’s lyrics.
(Photos: Matt Lucht)
The double bill of Memphis outfit Lucero and local foot-stompers The Underhill Family Orchestra at the Merry Widow promised a night that would proudly display Americana music in every contemporary iteration. Underhill fits into the broad swathe of new-folk bands that embrace heavy strumming and rousing choruses that will, inevitably, include some “hey”s and “ho”s, except Underhill wear war paint and incorporate gypsy and spiritual vibes into their folk-rock. Lucero, on the other hand, bears a much more potent country influence but tempers that with touches of punk and even soulful blues.
For a band who released their first album in 2011, Underhill have an on-stage confidence and live presence that rivals seasoned performers. Their roughly 30-minute set included raucous numbers and softer ballads, with the vocal interplay between guitarist Steven Laney, tambourinist Joelle Rosen and mandolinist Benjamin Cook solidifying that family band feel. If the energy of the jangly “10 Minute Stop” or their mid-set performance of “The Ballad of Aldo & Kat” could be topped, their finale “Oh Spirit, Bring Me Home” ended the set on a high with just the right blend of gritty rock and gospel.
Since forming in 1998, Lucero have released 11 albums, but most of their setlist Saturday night was drawn from their latest All a Man Should Do and their first four record label releases from the early 2000s. So, the classics with a little bit of the new stuff thrown in for good measure. And while front man Ben Nichols singlehandedly covered vocals for the entire night, his voice never felt insubstantial. Chock that up to the packed room full of people who knew these songs by heart. Kicking off with “Went Looking For Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles,” the repeated line “everyone can sing along” only encouraged them.
Whereas Underhill matched the quality of their studio recordings – tailored as they are to capture that live sound – Lucero come out sounding even better live, their instruments just as crisp and Nichols’ vocals given that slight live edge that only enriches the performance. And certainly that edge was helped throughout the night by Nichols’ regular interruptions of “Let me get another sip of whiskey.” The first was for a generous toast to their openers, and the last led to a flabbergasted Nichols exclaiming “What the fuck is that?! Who shoots rum?”
But booze featured prominently throughout the night, plentiful at the bar and in Lucero’s lyrics. It’s fair to say that their songs are generally either about booze or women, heavy drinking or relationships gone sour. “Last Night in Town,” with its lyrics “Tonight its whiskey, so buy another round/ Drink it up boys, it’s my last night in town,” can, should and, more than likely, is played at every Lucero gig. But fan-favorite “My Best Girl” is still the best distillation of Lucero’s soulful sensibilities (Sure, it’s a love song to a guitar. So what?). The entire venue drunkenly sang along, beers raised high over their heads. If that’s not the visual epitome of heartland rock, I don’t know what is.
For all the weight that Nichols pulls, the entire band was flawless. Guitarist Brian Venable was given any and all opportunity to unleash for a solo, and Nichols rightly stepped aside to give him the entire stage when he did. Keyboardist Rick Steff was in the shadows most of the night until he went for an insane key solo on “That Much Further West.” Later, he would strap on a mini accordion for a stripped down version of “The War.” My favorite band member by far, though, was John C. Stubblefield. The most disaffected bassist I have ever seen, he stood stage left wearing a cheesy t-shirt from my alma mater, of all places, and seemed to be on a different plane entirely. That is, until he attempted to crowd surf.
The end, when it came, seemed spontaneous. Lucero, and Nichols in particular, were so effortless throughout the night. But that’s what you get from a band that’s been around for 15+ years and played 200+ shows. Lucero haven’t been called one of the hardest working bands of the last decade for nothing. They could have just as easily continued for another two hours, and the crowd happily would have soaked up their charisma until morning. Their set felt so organic, with Nichols even throwing in a new song and charmingly fucking it up. Towards the end of their two and a half hour set, the band asked for requests, because it’s not like they were done playing. “Bikeriders” and “I’ll Just Fall” followed. But if “Last Night in Town” is a live essential, “Drink ‘Till We’re Gone” is the inescapable finale, as if this crowd needed to be told to guzzle down more drinks.