After a couple of consecutive unfortunate show cancellations late last week, the good ship Lucero fired its well-traveled engines back up in Hartford, Connecticut, last Saturday, resuming a late winter tour that was initially paused on Thursday so that frontman Ben Nichols could fly to Arkansas for his grandmother’s funeral. The band had every intention of cancelling only that night’s show in Rhode Island and reconnecting in New Hampshire on Friday, only for Mother Nature to intervene in the form of a powerful winter storm that left Nichols unable to fly north and his bandmates rarely able to leave the confines of their tour bus for the better part of two days. The band finally reassembled as their full Voltron at the relatively new, 600-ish capacity Infinity Music Hall for what was by all accounts the band’s first headline gig in the capital of the Nutmeg State — we’re pretty sure they played Hartford on the Warped Tour in 2011 — which seems pretty remarkable for a band that’s spent twenty years earning a reputation as one of the hardest touring bands in the game. Much to the delight of all but one show-going knucklehead, the band seemed eager to get back into the swing of things as regularly as possible, making for a memorable, if slightly abridged, evening.
There was a time years ago when a Lucero show had the potential to go off the rails for a variety of reasons, many of which centered around the dysfunctional family dynamics that are present in any group of males working together, particularly when there’s alcohol involved. There’s less alcohol involved nowadays, meaning that a 2018-era Lucero live show has become less volatile but no less unpredictable for the band or the fans. No two sets are the same as Nichols calls shots that balance his instincts with feedback from an audience that’s generally rather lubricated in their own right, meaning his bandmates (Rick Steff on keys, John Stubblefield on bass, Brian Venable on guitar and Roy Berry on drums) have got to react on the fly. On this particular night, the Memphis-based quintet kicked their headline set off with crowd favorite “The Last Song” from their 2002 full-length, Tennessee. In this writer’s experience, this particular song has many times been reserved for later in the evening given the crescendo it builds to, so its early appearance was a welcome change of pace right off the bat. From there, things went in typical free-form fashion, with the band choosing to stick with the same album for the similarly crowd-pleasing singalong “Chain Link Fence” before taking the opportunity to showcase some brand new material. You see, Lucero have been hard at work on a follow-up to their last full-length, 2015’s All A Man Should Do, for a while now, and have slowly been working through some newer songs on stage in recent months (a trend that’s fallen by the wayside across the musical spectrum in the age of YouTube). Nichols’ pointing out that they were going to play a few new tracks, however, didn’t sit well with one particularly vocal gentleman at stage right who made his opinion rather well known early on.
The net result proved, for the young man, to be a fail of epic proportions, as a defiant Nichols led the band through four consecutive brand new songs – including the live debut of a song that seems to be called “Cover Me” which might be the strongest of an already strong bunch – until said young man made his way to the exit. The bulk of the crowd seemed mindful of the special nature of seeing so many new tracks played in order, heckler be damned. There seemed to be nary a hiccup, as the new tracks seem to fit naturally in the Lucero lexicon. I’ll shy away from specific spoilers except to say that “Cover Me” and “To My Dearest Wife” and “Everything Has Changed” sound like songs that were written by 2002 Lucero but performed by 2018 Lucero. Trust me, that’ll make sense when you hear them.
Most of the remainder of the set found the band calling on an ever-expanding number of audience favorites. “Texas & Tennessee,” “All Sewn Up,” “It Gets The Worst At Night,” “Nights Like These” and “On My Way Downtown” made requisite, raucous appearances. When he wasn’t at the mic, Nichols spent a greater-than-average amount of time pacing the stage, giving the impression of somebody who was working through a bit of a cathartic experience. Steff was his typically stoic, stabilizing self on stage left, and his stage-right bookend Venable’s understated leads seemed dialed in. I’ve said before on these pages that Berry is one of my favorite drummers to spend time watching, and that was still true on this evening. There’s in improvisational quality to his playing that’s in line with the rest of the set; just because you’ve heard him play “Tears Don’t Matter Much” a dozen times doesn’t mean you’ve ever heard him play it the same way more than once. Stubblefield left the stage at one point to get seasick over the side of the boat but somehow didn’t miss a beat holding down the low end (and that’s obviously not true, but it’s an inside joke that only he and probably mu wife will understand and I’m mostly just seeing if he’s reading this). The Nichols solo track “Loving,” penned for his filmmaker brother Mike’s film of the same name, seemed especially fitting as played on what happened to be the eve of an Oscars ceremony for which it was robed of even a nomination. “I Can’t Stand To Leave You” off 2012’s Women & Work was a personal favorite, as it’s the first time I’ve actually heard them play it.
But without question, no song was more poignant and heartfelt than “The War.” Accompanied my the multi-instrumentally talented Rick Steff on accordion, the song finds Nichols telling the stories of his World War II-veteran grandfather’s time as a member of the US Army. Many of those stories were told to Nichols over the years by the very grandmother whose funeral he had just returned from, giving the moment a special, albeit heavy, weight. Heckler aside, the only sour note of the evening was the venue’s hard 10:45pm curfew, meaning the band that’s capable of some fairly long sets had to cut things off at around 90 minutes or so. Nit-picking, I know.
Kicking the evening off at 8:00pm sharp was the mighty Jake La Botz. Very much the quintessential renaissance man, La Botz has been one of the more underrated folk-Americana songwriters in recent memory. He frequently tours solo, though this run opening for Lucero finds La Botz fronting a trio, with Brad Tucker (upright bass) and Phil Leone (drums) serving as the rhythm section, providing a bit of depth and foundation for La Botz’s soulful stories and imaginative guitar riffs to shine. If you’re not familiar with La Botz’s catalog, last year’s Sunnyside is as good a place as any to start, as the tracks featured were particularly well-received by the devout Lucero crowd.
Head below for our full photo gallery from the highly enjoyable evening!