Lucero plays the Lincoln Theatre Thursday, Sept. 9, with American Aquarium, Max Indian, John Howie & the Rosewood Bluff and Ponderosa.
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Last October, following the release of their sixth album, 1372 Overton Park, Lucero played a sold-out show in New York City. The response was curiously enthusiastic: The mostly male audience slung beer onto the stage, danced violently, and sang loudly and drunkenly, arms wrapped around one another’s necks. While the band members appeared to appreciate the intensity of the rowdy response, they seemed chagrined by the nature of it, too, curbing their enthusiasm ever so slightly. Sure, they banged out their professionally heartfelt songs with enough flair to deliver a good show, but they avoided anything that might’ve felt like an invitation to riot.
Lucero can make a large venue feel like a small, cramped barroom, somehow without sacrificing the songs or selling out to the crowd’s worst instincts. For that, they are one of the best and most complex bar bands in America. They transcend the genre, even. A Memphis six-piece led by the pack-a-day growl of Ben Nichols, Lucero earns that bar rock label not simply because bar rock is a genre they seek to ape. Rather, from Brian Venable’s crowd-pleasing riffs to Roy Berry’s recombinant drumbeats to Nichols’ lyrics about “girls built for trouble from Arkansas” and “boys with the most metal heart of all,” the milieu thoroughly informs their songs.
Bar rock is not just a common musical language, though. As the tag suggests, it’s a common social setting, as if the corner dive is the only place where the musicians, the listeners and the characters might ever cross paths. In that regard, Lucero has been genre romantics from their first note. They became precariously self-aware on 2005’s Nobody’s Darlings, singing literally from the stage while events played out in the crowd. Rather than sap the life out of the songs in the studio, this approach made the emotions more acute. It was as if the band members had accepted their roles as professional musicians, forced to play on as real life surrounded their songs.
Lucero has turned these concerns into an actual career, one that even seems to surprise them. Just 10 years ago, they were playing actual bars in Memphis and Little Rock, developing their chops and ignoring labels like “emo country.” Five years ago, they were the subjects of a documentary that explored why the band wasn’t more popular. But they actually did grow: By 2010, Lucero had signed to Universal Republic and released their major-label debut, 1372 Overton Park, named after the address of their practice space in a city that still informs their sound.
Those long years of obscurity were useful creatively, if not commercially, serving to reinforce Lucero’s bar-band ethos and imply that they had other reasons to be at that dive that weren’t merely professional. Later albums like Nobody’s Darlings and Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers sound like the band is trying hard to break their professional rut. Lucero come across as desperate to please or persuade, which only intensifies their heart-on-sleeve sincerity.
So call Lucero bar-band sophisticates whose aspirations extend well beyond the barstool. Their curiosity toward all types of Southern music culminated in 1372 Overton Park, where Stax horns jostle against swamp grooves, boogie rock, rockabilly rhythm and bluesy bluster. They cap it all off with a country-sentimental song called “Mom” that would make even the glitziest Nashville hat act jealous. That musical ambition, coupled with their professional perseverance, has not only made them unlikely heroes to many rambunctious fans but has also allowed them to turn the whole world into their barroom.