Last night before Memphis for Lucero
Seven o’clock is the weird hour at Ace’s Basement, especially on a Tuesday night. The headlining band, Lucero, has pulled in from Virginia, unloaded their gear and sound-checked. It will be another hour and a half before the first patrons filter in.
The lighting inside is dim even though the sun is still high in the sky. The stench of stale cigarette smoke is even more noticeable when the room isn’t full of human bodies. It’s a moment of boredom or maybe just quietude, the nadir to the explosive release at the end of the night when the band pours its guts out onstage.
At one end of the bar sits club owner Joe Ferguson sipping a beer. At the other end, Lucero manager Donna Orr, a slender, elegant Asian woman dressed in a crimson suede jacket, is absorbed with her Palm Pilot. In the middle seat, bass player John Stubblefield leans against a pillar, a look of profound disgruntlement written across his face.
No one makes a move when the reporter walks into the room. Stubblefield nods imperceptibly to confirm that he’s in the band. He mumbles a couple of monosyllabic responses to questions about the band’s drive down from Virginia. Then he disappears into the dressing room to retrieve Ben Nichols, the band’s singer, songwriter, rhythm guitarist and, it seems, spokesman.
Nichols emerges dressed in a soiled farm cap with a ‘“Lucky’” patch sewn on top, suede cowboy boots, jeans and a white T-shirt that reveals a treasure map of homemade tattoos up and down his skinny arms.
He’s an affable guy, happy to talk about his band, but not overly impressed with himself. Folded into an armchair in the dressing room with his boots propped on a table he projects a look of contented weariness. After playing Asbury Park, NJ, on Sunday they took Monday night off, he says. This is their last night on the tour and the band is driving 12 hours straight to get home to Memphis after the show tonight.
Lucero has been on the road for a year and a half now, playing in support of their 2003 release, That Much Further West. And it shows.
They’ll take a couple weeks off and go out again in support of their new record, Nobody’s Darlings, which hits stores on May 24. The new recorded was produced by legendary Memphis hipster Jim Dickinson, who played piano on the Rolling Stones’ ‘“Wild Horses’” during their Muscle Shoals sessions, and presided over recording sessions for Big Star and the Replacements. This might be Lucero’s moment.
In a little while the band’s guitar player, Brian Venable, enters the dressing room. He’s a portly guy who wears a black railroad cap and heavy black-framed glasses. His arms, like Nichols’, are covered in tattoos.
‘“It’s hard to jump rope on an uneven parking lot,’” he announces.
He was out of the band for some time before returning in early 2004. He laughs when asked about his ‘“hiatus.’”
‘“Yes, I was on sabbatical,’” he says. ‘“No, actually, it got hectic and crazy for me. I didn’t really want to leave.’”
The members of Lucero have something of a reputation for getting trashed on stage, including at least one performance that featured vomiting. Neither Nichols nor Venable are drinking much tonight.
Venable came back when the second guitar player left and the band needed someone to play a tour with the punk band Against Me.
‘“I tried to find another guitar player in the tri-state area, and I couldn’t find one,’” Nichols says. ‘“So we brought him back and it’s worked out.’”
Nichols and Venable were the first two members of Lucero back in ’98 when they started a country band to try to piss off kids at punk shows. They’re like errant brothers whose occasional fights only underscore their deep affection for one another.
‘“We’re rolling up on our tenth anniversary together,’” Venable remarks to Nichols. ‘“What are we going to do to celebrate? Are you going to take me out to dinner.’”
Outside the dressing room, towards the back of the hall, Orr is staffing the Lucero merch table and conducting more business on the Palm Pilot. Nichols leans across the table and asks her for drink tickets. The management of Ace’s Basement has given each band 16 tickets, which can be exchanged at the bar for bottles of Pabst Blue Ribbon. Part of Orr’s job is to ration the drink tickets.
‘“I know it’s kind of funny for a band of four guys to have a female manager, but it works that way,’” she says. ‘“They need me to keep them in line and keep them smelling good.’”
She got to know the members of Lucero when she was working at their last label, which has subsequently folded. Her disillusionment with the music industry led to her decision to offer her services as a tour manager to the band, she says.
‘“I saw a lot of stuff that was real corrupt even though it was an indie label, so I wanted to get back to something that was more pure,’” she says. She’d planned to go on the road for a month. By now she’s been with the band for a year and a half. She likes working with them because they don’t have big egos.
As the band climbs on the stage, Orr attests to something like authentic faith.
‘“I don’t think I’m going anywhere soon,’” she says. ‘“As much as they’re a pain in the ass sometimes I love being on the road with them. I’m a member of the band. If I see them wanting to progress as opposed to plateau I’ll stick around. I might have to move to Memphis, and that’s a big commitment.’”
Now about five songs into the set, Nichols hunches over his guitar and thrashes out some elemental bar chords, his thin frame bristling with energy. He sings one from the latest record called ‘“Drink ‘Til We’re Gone.’”
He scrunches his face as he belts out a song of committed dissolution, his vocals tender and heartfelt and sung with such vigor that his voice threatens to break. He shakes his head in a jerky motion that is both exultant and laden with self-disgust. His eyes roll back into his head, making him look like a half-crazed cornered dog. But behind the performance is a good-humored artist who laughs at his travails, a gracious singer who quietly thanks the crowd after each song in a slurred Southern accent.
It’s not their best show and the room is only a third full on this Tuesday night. But a throng of hard-core fans in the front row from Chapel Hill yell with gratitude. At the end of the show, Nichols sits on the edge of stage and humbly receives their compliments.
The lyrics of Nobody’s Darlings’ title track ‘— a song the band doesn’t play in Greensboro ‘— reveal a lot about Lucero at this stage in their career.
‘“We spent our early days just f*cking up,’” Nichols sings. ‘“We never should have made it this far/ So shut up and play guitar/ I sit up watching her dance/ I’m happy just watching her dance.’”
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