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Rocking Memphis-style

Lucero evolved from country to rock, soul. It's at Fonda Theatre on Wednesday.

March 21, 2012|Jac Chebatoris
  • "Having a band in Memphis puts you in a tradition," says Lucero frontman Ben Nichols. "We started at punk rock shows, not necessarily playing punk rock, but coming from the outside, from a bohemian place."
"Having a band in Memphis puts you in a tradition," says Lucero… (Brantley Gutierrez )

MEMPHIS, TENN. — About 135 miles lie between Little Rock, Ark., and Memphis, Tenn., and Lucero's singer Ben Nichols knows them well. "I drove a lot, back and forth between Little Rock and Memphis when I was young," said the 37-year-old Arkansas native over a Jameson and club soda at the Cove, one of his favorite Memphis bars.

"I loved the idea of being from this part of the country and driving through the cotton fields and the rice fields between the two cities and just kind of knowing that yeah, that is where Johnny Cash is from," says Nichols. "And B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf and Levon Helm and the Band and Ronnie Hawkins all played these little towns throughout the Arkansas delta. Memphis was kind of the capital of all of that. Memphis is the epicenter."

Memphis' presence is palpable on Lucero's new album, "Women & Work." The city is, after all, the birthplace of rock and roll (think Elvis, Sun Studio and Jerry Lee Lewis).

Barroom bombast, shot glass swagger and abject rowdiness drive the Southern alt-rock band's CD, as well as heavy doses of Memphis soul from a horn section comprised of locals Jim Spake and Scott Thompson. Returning producer Ted Hutt (The Gaslight Anthem) augmented the band's sound by pulling soul and gospel elements to the forefront.

Lyrically, Nichols' songs are often about women he's loved and lost. But his longest-lasting relationship has been with the tattooed, scruffy men in his band.

The members of Lucero, who play the Fonda Theatre (formerly Music Box) on Wednesday, have been together 13 years. From their early indie label days to major label implosions (they were dropped by Universal Republic), they've stuck with it and each other. Aside from a year when guitarist Brian Venable left, the core group is still drummer Roy Berry, bassist John C. Stubblefield, pianist/accordion player Rick Steff and pedal steel player Todd Beene.

The band's unusually long union is forged out of a love for rock, country, soul, whiskey and their city. But Lucero's sound has evolved from scrappy punk-country to the Southern rock hybrid it is today. Venable says that while they were recording Lucero's eighth and newest album (released last week), they were influenced by early Bob Seger System (in Seger's "pre Dad-rock era," Venable clarifies, meaning before the Silver Bullet Band) and the Faces.

Venable, 40, has the Southern gift of gab. He will tell you that he didn't know how to play guitar when he joined the band, just as quickly as he will about the time he tried to remove a brown recluse spider bite with an X-Acto knife, or that sometimes he'll work in his dad's shoe repair shop to make a few bucks.

Riding social media to fame, going viral on YouTube or hitting it big on "The X Factor" is not their scene, he says. Instead, Lucero is a model of the way bands used to build an audience. "We got in the van when gas was $1.50 a gallon," Venable says.

Lucero still tours constantly, playing nearly 200 shows a year. They have no delusions -- or desire -- of becoming the next Coldplay, and their style certainly speaks to that. "If you're looking for very slick production and a tight set and you want to be blown away with a light show and amazing choreography... nah, you're not going to find that at a Lucero show," Nichols says. "And that's not what our crowd's looking for. We have our things we do and we're comfortable with."

As a result, the band has amassed a fervid fan base, some with tattoos of Lucero lyrics on their bodies. "We like to amble out on stage, make some noise, say, 'How y'all doing? Let's play some songs,' " says Nichols, taking a gulp of his drink. "You can't do that in front of 75,000 people. I mean, you can... and hell, we might one day, but it's a very informal environment for a Lucero show."

It's after 2 a.m. and the Cove bar is emptying out. It's a wonder Nichols is still awake because for the past four days, he's been working overtime at Memphis' Ardent studios, tightening up songs for his younger brother, director and screenwriter Jeff Nichols' next film, "Mud," starring Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey.

But Nichols is also wired. He's got a big date the next day -- and at least 40 or more of them after that -- as the band members continue their headlining tour with a flight out in the morning to play Alaska. Theirs is one love story he didn't have to write, because he and the rest of Lucero are living it.

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