Which made Sunday's set the best Lucero show I've ever seen. Which should be a hard call to make.
The band was so loose and sloppy and laid back and increasingly inebriated throughout the set, it was a spectacle. Completely ridiculous by the end. Which made it brilliant. It will be hard for any band to come to town and match this show. So Solly told me he's not going to bother to see another band 'til January. He was lying (OK, OK, exaggerating).
Ben Nichols started by apologizing that his voice might not be up to par, but it's hard to get anymore gravel in there. It did sound deeper than usual, a growl, but it was pretty much the same Nichols we're used to. And as the set moved along, he demonstrated that he's not just a great singer and songwriter and storyteller and regular guy -- the band is nothing but regular guys, maybe because they haven't yet found the fame to match their talent -- but he's also a consummate entertainer.
For the uninitiated, Lucero's Southern rock that often leans toward punk and pop trash. A lot of sad songs. Great drinking music. And they started with a rare treat, "Bikeriders" off 2005's "Nobody's Darlings." Pretty and up tempo but sad as a car wreck. And they followed up with the tear-in-your-beer soaked Americana of "Nights Like These" from 2002's "Tennessee." And it just got more depressing with "Darken My Door," which hints of more great LPs to come. But it's a kind of sad that puts a smile on your face. A familiar sad. Sad's like good company, an old friend, coming from this band.
"Alright, drinking songs," Nichols said to intro "Kiss the Bottle," the old non-LP Jawbreaker song that sounds like it was written for Lucero ("I kissed the bottle. I should have been kissing you."), and which Lucero has made their own over the past few years.
Nichols' apologies continued throughout the set, which was absurd. The four-piece -- rounded out by drummer Roy Berry, bassist John C. Stubblefield and guitarist Brian Venable -- was augmented by keys (Rick Steff) and steel guitar (Todd ?), which always makes for a better Lucero set, letting the band grow some of the songs, and the steel and organ on "I'll Just Fall" made it more beautiful, and yes, more of a downer, than the recording. And when Nichols missed his strings after the pause before the first of the last group of "I'll just fall"s, the S-bomb he dropped only proved my point about him as an entertainer. Not a gut was left unbusted. He messed up and it only made the set better. Later, he'd sing a verse of "Dangerous Thing" and follow with, "Was that the second verse or the first?" Same effect.
A heart-wrenching rendition of "Ain't No Sunshine" was the best that song's sounded since the Harlem Underground took their crack at it about three decades ago. Then mid-show, "Hearts on Fire" was a set stealer, starting sad and slow but quickly giving way to rowdy foot stomping, the toastable line "punk rock girls and Lone Star beer," and Nichols' pained growl "My hearts on fire. Do you feel the flame?" to bring the song to a finish. Next "Sweet Little Thing" was bigger and better and fuller than on record, again thanks to the steel and keys, and "Chain Link Fence" was played with a stutter and more power and punch. A drawn out, freewheeling "All Sewn Up" played like a lively honky tonk show.
And then it really fell apart. Steff started messing with Nichols, playing "Wind Beneath My Wings," then -- for at least the third time -- starting in on "Chariots of Fire," to which Nichols ran in slow motion across the stage, wielding a trophy which he joked he'd stick somewhere that would, um, make Steff stop playing "Chariots of Fire." At that point, he was sucking whiskey from a bottle of Jameson's like it was Ireland's teat and asking for a hero -- hence, "Wind Beneath My Wings" -- to bring him a Coke to chase it.
After their cover of Townes Van Zandt's "Colorado Girl" -- just Nichols, steel guitar and keys, as on "She Wakes When She Dreams" and "The Last Pale Light in the West" (the only selection from Nichols' recent mini-LP of the same name) -- Nichols told the story behind the next song, Van Zandt's pickup line for his third wife, "Hey Darlin', Do Ya Gamble," and performed that new song.
"This is the stupidest show we've played in a while," Nichols said in apology before closing with just his voice and Steff's piano on "Fistful of Tears," the prettiest and saddest song of the set. He insisted the band's been behaving well lately, like "at the church in Philadelphia."
"There will be absolutely no encore after this," he said mid-song. "I'm lucky I made it this far. I really didn't think I'd make it this far."
He barely managed to remember a shout out to opener Titus Andronicus before he left the stage and, regular, blue collar guy style, took a seat at the bar.
After an April 2007 show at the same venue, I wrote, "The crowd responded excitedly. Lots of looking over the shoulder to smile in approval at a friend. People slouched to bob their heads in a country hunch. And there was more brink-of-air-guitar fist pumping, thumb and middle finger clasped over a phantom pick, than you usually see among the too-cool-for-fool crowd at the Black Cat." It was the same kind of crowd. Solly, recalling a conversation from the week before about D.C.'s rep for unresponsive crowds, pointed out that sometimes the band transcends. Anyway, Lucero's just too much fun to listen to not to join in. And it's a certain type of listener, I guess. And a certain feeling or passion in the music.
One more thing that made this show tough to beat: Titus Andronicus. Great opening act, one of the best young bands around, and one that has almost as much wit in their act and just as much depression in their songs as Lucero. Before they had a chance to start, someone shouted for Liam Betson.
"Liam hasn't been in the band for a year," singer Sarim Al-Rawi deadpanned. "This is off to a great start."
He'd intro the second song with a shout to his brother in the crowd, then reveal the song was about their parents' divorce. That's potentially the sunniest subject matter they cover. This band's a lot different from Lucero, though both owe a debt to the Pogues -- Titus Andronicus more so thanks to Al-Rawi's brogue. They aren't Irish, though, and they let you know. They pimp Glen Rock, N.J., as much as any band has ever pimped their hometown. But also like Lucero, they wear their influences like a bib. Titus Andronicus is more of an homage to their influences, though. It's a lot of pre-British Invasion pop rock and surf rock played louder, heavier, raucous and more distorted -- basically run through the ringer of '70s punk and '90s slacker indie. They paid their respects to the likes of The Clash and Billy Bragg as blatantly as Al-Rawi's vocals owe a debt to Shane MacGowan. But it was still their own thing. The lo-fi distortion courtesy of indie rock, the nervous energy, the jittery slacker guitar solos (particularly on "Upon Viewing Brueghel's 'Landscape With the Fall of Icarus'" and "Arms Against Atrophy") had me on the brink of exploding. Had more people in the crowd been physical, I might have moshed for the first time in 15 years. But plenty of people in the crowd were wound the same way, judging from the number of fist punching the air to the "F you!" that properly kicked off "Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ."
As for a final note on Lucero, listen (and check the set list) for yourself. (Thanks to Tony Bowman.)