If you’re a fan and follower of Lucero, you’re no doubt aware that the chance for inclement weather surrounding the band’s Family Block Party, an annual day-long outdoor festival held at Minglewood Hall in their hometown of Memphis, Tennesee, is generally somewhere in the neighborhood of 100%. In fact, the trend dates back to pre-Block Party years, when they held a similarly themed Family Picnic in frontman Ben Nichols’ birthplace of Little Rock, Arkansas. And so it was no surprise when a daily check of the weather forecast last week devolved from “hey, this doesn’t look too bad,” to “oh well, bring a poncho” to “oh my god, we might get a tornado” in the lead-up to Saturday’s festivities. And while no tornadoes touched down in Memphis (the closest did, however, make a deadly appearance a couple hour drive down the road into Mississippi), Saturday did bring with it a deluge and thunderstorm of nearly Biblical proportions, causing more than a few game-time decisions, a bunch of mad merch-table dashes, and an altered venue and lineup that made for perhaps the most unique – and most classically-Lucero – Block Party to date.
Local musician Ben Abney and his band, The Hurts, were due to kick off festivities in the mid-afternoon on the stage set up in Minglewood Hall’s adjacent parking lot amidst the myriad merch tents and craft beer and food vendors, and they did just that to a crowd that was admittedly thin as a result of weather-phobic late arrivers that may or may not have included yours truly. It was from here that all hell proceeded to break proverbially loose, as the rain continued to fall harder and harder and was accompanied by frequent local thunder and lightning. There are rules surrounding lightning strikes and electrical equipment, and I’m not going to pretend to be enough of an electrical engineer to understand them. What I do know is that there was a stage full of instruments and backline equipment and the venue’s main PA and soundboard equipment were sitting in the middle of a parking lot that was rapidly turning into a pond. All of it, due to the severity of the storm, was untouchable. So as the vendors and merch crews broke down their displays and lugged everything inside at breakneck speed, the actual “show” people came to see had stalled out; more tickets had been sold than the 1600 capacity indoor venue could accommodate, and there was no real sound equipment from which to hear anybody anyway, so the next ninety-or-so minutes consisted of a club’s worth of people wondering what, exactly, would happen next.
What happened next could have been…well…ugly. The bars were open and the food was located outside and across the parking lot from the venue. Couple that with a lack of discernible information about how things were going to proceed and you had an equation that could have gone rather poorly. Slowly but surely, however, the night turned pretty special. The Mighty Souls Brass Band, who’d been slated to make a few between-set appearances strolling through the outdoor grounds, brought their New Orleans-via-Memphis brass sound indoors to help keep the crowd fired up on the music at hand. Finally, Austin Lucas, who’d been slated to play the outdoor stage next up, accompanied by a full band, grabbed an acoustic guitar, made his way to the front of the stage area in the main concert hall at Minglewood, and belted out a handful of tunes not only unplugged but un-mic’d, accompanied by only the crowd that had started to gather once they realized something was happening. It’s worth mentioning that Lucas had played a full-band show in the UK the night before, hopped a flight back to the States, and made it to Memphis about an hour before he was supposed to play. Had the show gone as planned, his performance would have been impressive; as it turned out given the circumstances, it was downright Herculean.
While Lucas was playing on the floor, the venue’s staff was plugging in mics and lights on the stage in an effort to make the best with what they had around them. Lucero’s lead guitar player Brian Venable took the stage and filled in the faithful that, while they still couldn’t access the sound equipment that was still outside the venue, there’d be stripped down sets from the shows performers on the big stage for the rest of the night. What would have been an outdoor Family Block Party was now going to be, essentially, an indoor Family Lock In. Lucero frontman Ben Nichols kicked things off by running through a few tracks on his own before calling Lucas back out where they shared vocal duties on the Lucas-requested Lucero track “Slow Dancing.” Lucas then played another of his own songs, the title track from his latest album Immortal Americans.
Will Hoge followed with his unique brand of rabble-rousing, country-tinged songwriter fair. Hoge is a Tennessee native who’s made a living challenging not only the status quo in Nashville, but challenging a series of long-held cultural beliefs about just what it means to be a white man living in the Bible Belt. Hoge has been called the “Tennessee Troublemaker” for good reason, making a career out of asking difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions of his listeners. While he was also supposed to play with a full band on the big outdoor stage, getting the chance to see him on just acoustic guitar gave his handful of songs a little extra poignancy. Charlie Starr of Georgia rock band Blackberry Smoke followed. His band were due to be main support for this episode of the Lucero Family Block Party, but the above-mentioned circumstances found Starr also playing solo acoustic style on the indoor stage. While Blackberry Smoke’s normal sound is steeped in modern Allman Brothers/Skynyrd Southern grooves, hearing Starr play solo and unaccompanied gave more of a Laurel Canyon/Neil Young vibe to the festivities. Ben Abney also returned for a bit of an encore, getting the opportunity to play on a stage that was A) dry and B) in front of hundreds of people unlike his full-band, rain-soaked set earlier in the day. Abney has a punk rocker’s past, and as a solo artist has got a penchant for writing tear-jerking soul-filled folk songs, all of which were perfect for a Lucero crowd.
Introduced by Lucero bass player/”spirit animal” John C. Stubblefield, Ben Nichols took the stage again for what would be the event’s headline set, a bit of a seat-of-your-pants ninety-ish minute set that included both Nichols’ solo work and a bunch of Lucero staples. The set kicked off with Nichols accompanied by his trusty sidekick Rick Steff on accordion for songs like “Nights Like These,” “Davy Brown,” and the gut-wrenching “Darby’s Song,” the latter of which I don’t think I’d heard live before. Nichols brought out Mighty Souls’ Jason Yasinsky (trombone) and Jim Spake (saxophone) – the latter of who appeared as the centerpiece of Lucero’s horn section for a number of years – for a handful of tracks that included “Sixes & Sevens,” “On My Way Downtown” and “Can’t You Hear Them Howl.” Nichols leaned heavily on audience requests as the night progressed, and frequently made mention of his respect for the audience for hanging in there in spite of the less-than-ideal circumstances that the weather created. And so while those in attendance didn’t have the opportunity to catch some of their favorite full bands outside under the Memphis sky, those that stuck it out were eventual witness to an event that was uniquely special in its own right.
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