Prank calls from Ryan Adams, getting half their equipment stolen from their van in New York, getting flashed and harassed by an overeager and middle-aged bar regular in Nashville. These are among the highlights of a year in the life of Lucero, the local band that emerged as one of the most popular acts on the Memphis scene a year and a half ago with the release of their eponymous debut album.
But the time in between the run of shows supporting that record and the upcoming release of their second, Tennessee, has seen the band mostly missing from the local landscape and instead on the road, establishing a following in regional strongholds such as Fayetteville, Little Rock, Louisville, Jackson, Mississippi, Nashville, and Knoxville and venturing out to farther stops such as New York, Denver, and Minneapolis.
"It's the same thing we went through locally three years ago, where you have to constantly prove yourselves, over and over again, with each new club we play," lead singer Ben Nichols says of the band's recent never-ending tour, sometimes in support of local colleagues the North Mississippi Allstars and sometimes going it alone. "It's tiring, but that's what you've gotta do."
"Sometimes, it doesn't even matter so much if a lot of people show up," says guitarist Brian Venable. "If the booker is there and likes you, that can help you the next time through town."
"We're trying to make contacts with the right people and find the right clubs for us in every market in the country, and that takes a while," says Nichols.
In that respect, the band's North Mississippi Allstars association has been both help and hindrance, according to bass player John Stubblefield, raising Lucero's profile among bookers and club owners but also finding them occasionally booked in more jam-band settings that don't really fit what they do.
Drummer Roy Berry says that the band has played 99 shows since January, with as many in New York as Memphis, trips that have seen them go from playing in front of a thousand people at Irving Plaza with the Allstars to playing solo at Hank's Saloon, the site of their van break-in.
The band is back in town for August, culminating in this week's record-release party at Young Avenue Deli for Tennessee, a record mostly recorded a year ago with the Allstars' Cody Dickinson at the Dickinsons' home studio, with some post-production work at Ardent and Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service. September will see the band back on the road for a month of shows in the Southeast and then out on the West Coast for the first time in October.
Available for purchase at the record-release party but not officially released until October, Tennessee is getting a national push from local label MADJACK that Lucero didn't have. And it's a more confident, more polished record across the board, from the sound to the packaging.
The band spent a lot more time on this record than they did on their debut, and you can hear the difference in the expansiveness of the sound: the layered guitars and programmed percussion of the lead track, "Sweet Thing," the dobro and lap steel that Venable adds, Nichols' bare-bones piano, and the contributions of local luminaries such as Cory Branan and Clint Wagner.
This is a band whose music has always been marred by an occasional bum lyric (see the guitar-as-lover metaphor of "My Best Girl" and the romantic machismo of "Raising Hell" on the first record) but whose sure musicality has always overcome it. While there's nothing that forced on Tennessee, the sweet girls/sad songs sameness is hard to ignore.
But the story, as always, is the music, and in this respect --the band's smart, dynamic but never indulgent song construction and Nichols' warm, soulful drawl -- they sound better than ever. The band even confronts this dynamic on one of my favorite Lucero moments, the climax of "Nights Like These," which is in the great rock-and-roll tradition of sound picking up where lyrics fall short. "The beer tastes like blood and my mouth is numb/I can't make the words I need to say/She had a weakness for writers/And I was never that good at the words anyways," Nichols admits but then drops into a circular guitar riff that communicates all the emotion the lyric grasps for.
Which is not to say that the lyrics are all that flawed: "Slow Dancing" and "I'll Just Fall" convey that lonely late-night vibe that the Replacements used to nail, while the lyrical simplicity of "When You're Gone" works beautifully. But the key to Lucero's music is still how the lyrics provide a sliver of focus for their more articulate sonics, for the Crazy Horse-style guitar attack of "The Last Song," the muted piano-and-acoustic-bass mood music of "Fistful Of Tears," and the rise-and-fall explosiveness of live favorite "Here At the Starlite."
Opening for Lucero at Young Avenue Deli and then celebrating their own record release a couple of days later at Cooper-Young's Legba Records is Viva L'American Death Ray Music. Released on the California indie label Sympathy For the Record Industry, the band's second full-length, Smash Radio Hits, is a giant leap ahead of their poorly recorded first effort. Recorded at Easley-McCain Recording, Smash Radio Hits finally captures the band's invigoratingly glammy live vibe on disc. A propulsive half-hour of vampy rock-and-roll, Hits evokes the likes of the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, the New York Dolls, and, in Suzie Hendrix's sax skronk, the Stooges. The band also has a new EP, A New Commotion, A Delicate Tension, in the works, which should be available at the release show.
with Viva L'American Death Ray Music
Young Avenue Deli
Saturday, August 31st
Monday, September 2nd, 5:30 p.m.