By Brian F. Johnson
Years ago — almost a decade ago now, before Ben Nichols hardly had any gray hairs — Lucero’s frontman was filmed driving the band’s decrepit van talking about the struggles of being a touring group with very little support. In that scene of the documentary “Dreaming In America: A Film About Lucero” Nichols held up his thumb and forefinger and said in an incredibly earnest tone, that overflowed with hope as well as frustration, “We’re close. And I think we can make it.”
He wasn’t talking about making it big in the traditional sense. He was talking about getting a record deal that wouldn’t completely screw the band, about making just enough money to where the guys in the group could even ponder a credit application without being laughed out of the bank, but mostly he was talking about just hanging tough long enough that the band he had founded would eventually be able to call their own shots.
Now with 10 years of touring more than 150 shows per year and a dozen albums under their belt, a noticeably gray-haired Nichols said proudly this month “I think we made it. What I was referring to back then is something that we’ve arrived at for the last little while now,” he said, during a recent interview with The Marquee. “You know it’s nice pulling into town and knowing that a few folks are going to show up to the show, or that it might be sold out already. In the old days we’d pull into a town and it would be a crap shoot and we might end up playing to just the bartenders. But we’ve been doing this for so long that we have become more established and it’s more comfortable. That was the goal. We can’t take a year off of work or anything like that, but being a working band we are out there every day doing our job — and it’s a great job.”
Nichols, who refers to cities by their venues instead of their name, an almost instant reflex to years on the road, continued to say that the goal of Lucero was never to play gargantuan shows, but to play the right shows for the band and the fans. “I enjoy playing places like the Bluebird or the Gothic — anything bigger and that makes me nervous, personally. But getting to do a few nights at a smaller venue is much more exciting to me than doing one huge night at an arena. We’re at the point where we can dictate what kind of shows we want to play and I like that a lot,” he said.
The band, which started out as a four-piece in 1998, has over the years swelled to incorporate a piano player as well as a horn section, but through the growth, Lucero has remained a blue-collar, working-class band that sings glass-lifting songs about love, loss and drinking — and undeniably a huge part of any live Lucero show is about getting a bit sloppy and singing every word back to the band as they play.
“I have no idea why that happens, but man, I’m glad it happens,” Nichols chuckled. “You know all of the subject matter of most Lucero songs is pretty straight forward, so I think most folks have been in these situations. Most folks can relate.”
This fall, the band released it’s first live album, aptly titled Live From Atlanta, but unlike many bands who put out live packages Lucero left the crowd high in the mix — not to an annoying level, but enough so that they can be heard singing along. “That’s exactly what we hear every night, and they were a rowdy crowd too,” Nichols said. “The crowd mix was an important part of it because the crowd is a very important element of any live Lucero show.”
The album, recorded over three nights in Atlanta, is a massive career-spanning four LP, 32 song, two-hour behemoth of a release. “It’s a ridiculous amount of music in one package,” Nichols laughed, “But that’s what we do each night. It would have been tricky to do it any other way. I don’t know what I would have left off.”
Nichols said that the band was “overdue” for a live recording, but also said that he’s very proud of the way the addition of the piano and horns have melded into the Lucero sound. “It seemed a good time to document everything. We’ve been playing with the horns a whole bunch and we’ve been adding new elements to old songs,” he said. But in what could be one of the most honest answers in rock history, Nichols added “Part of it though was to buy me a little extra time. It’s definitely time to get back into the studio and make the next studio album, but we’ve been so busy playing live that I haven’t had time to write yet.”
Nichols said that after the first of the year, when the band heads home, he’ll start writing and that they hope to hit the studio by spring and have an album out sometime in 2015.
On Lucero’s current tour, the band has taken on an exciting and different opening act — themselves. While they’re enjoying the big band sound, for this tour Lucero gets scaled down closer to their original size and plays an acoustic set to open each show. “We didn’t go all the way back down to a four piece but we did take it down to the five piece and we brought back the stand up bass and acoustic guitar and we play really quiet and really slow. We do an acoustic set, take a break and come back and do the electric set and it’s been awesome. The two are completely different dynamics and the crowds have been super polite and patient and quiet for these — and then we get crazy during the electric sets.”
Nichols hinted at the fact that “getting crazy” may start taking on new definitions for him in the coming years. The singer, who is known to throw a few beverages back on stage, and share drinks with fans in the venue lobbies up until last call turned 40 this year, and he said that the writing is on the wall that he’s going to need to make some changes. “It definitely takes its toll. I’ll probably have to get a little bit better at turning in after the shows, as I get older. I have a feeling there will still be a few drinks during the set each night. It’s the drinking afterwards that kicks my ass. I’m kind of right at that line where it’s going to change to, ‘Oh wow, this really hurts now. I can’t do this anymore.’ But,” he said, with a slight smirk, “I haven’t made the switch yet.”
Lucero Gothic Theatre December 29, 30 and 31
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