UPDATE: Tonight's Lucero show at Dead Dog postponed until March

For Weekly SurgeJanuary 22, 2014 

Lucero. Photo by Brantley Guiterrez.

  • IF YOU GO

    WHAT | Lucero, with Johnny Fritz

    WHEN | 8 p.m. Tuesday

    WHERE | Dead Dog Saloon, 4079 U.S. 17 Business, Murrells Inlet.

    HOW MUCH | Free, except for $20 VIP seating

    CONTACT | Call 651-0664 or visit www.deaddogsaloon.com

Just what is rock ‘n’ roll?

Singer/songwriter/band leader Ben Nichols, of Lucero, says that he isn’t sure, but he suspects that rock ‘n’ roll, not unlike he and his band, is ever evolving, and that it operates best with few rules.

We caught up with Nichols by phone from Los Angeles while he was on a short holiday break. This nearly native Memphis, Tenn. resident has seen almost every nook and cranny of North America in the 16 years Lucero has been touring and recording. But he’s never been to Murrells Inlet, the locale of tonight's Dead Dog Saloon show, which has been postponed until March 19 due to the impending ice/snow storm set to hit the Grand Strand.

“It’s one of the perks of touring,” said Nichols, “seeing new places. We’ve been to Charleston and Wilmington (N.C.) a bunch, but never the Myrtle Beach area. It’s rare to play a new place, we’ve been around so much, so that’s a treat.”

For all its many years in the studio and on the road, Lucero is not a household name, but Nichols and his Denver, Co.-based 7S Management see bright skies ahead for a band sometimes known for its dark music, and the band got an uptick in the cool factor department when Lucero posters could be seen on the walls of Walt Jr.’s bedroom in the now-defunct TV series “Breaking Bad.”

The challenge for the brand is that the band sometimes falls into a category of acts that we should know, but don’t. Once we’re exposed, however, we become fans.

Chris Gingrich, of Myrtle Beach-via California, has been a fan for approximately six years. Why?

“I discovered them through other bands in the same genre,” said Gingrich, who is co-owner of Ging Alley, a web design and promotions company. “I’ve been a Son Volt, and a Wilco fan for years. As soon as I heard about the Lucero show (at Dead Dog) I bought tickets; got right on it.”

Melting pot of music

Though it sounds cliché to say it, it may never be truer; Lucero transcends genres; country, punk, country-punk, blues, Memphis soul, rock ’n’ roll, but ultimately fits nicely into Americana, the orphanage for all misfits of roots music that have a difficult-to-define sound, a restless cowboy spirit, and no real home.

“Americana, country, punk, rock ‘n’ roll, horns – it’s all in there,” said Nichols, who was raised in Little Rock, Ark., but says he “followed a girl to Memphis,” when he was 21. It was while there that Nichols would ultimately build Lucero from the rich and fertile musical landscape of Memphis, and to a much lesser degree Nashville, Tenn.

“With the (legendary Southern soul record label) Stax reference in the horns there’s a certain country-soul element as well,” he continued. “We’re all over the map. People have always been hard-pressed to find an accurate description. My keyboard player came up with one of the best descriptions; a ‘soulful southern rock band.’ I’ve always adhered to ‘there’s two kinds of music; good and bad,’ and I just take pieces from my favorite stuff and throw it into the pile, mix it up, and what comes out is Lucero. Lately we’ve been getting back to our roots; Chuck Berry-Thin Lizzy.”

But Lucero has also been called a country act.

How country is Lucero? Not very.

“I love and respect a lot of things about Nashville,” said Nichols, “but it’s a totally different beast, and my allegiance is tied to Memphis. It’s a really cool city. Obviously it has amazing history, musical and otherwise. I’ve always had a really romantic idea of the town and loved everything that came out of it. All of the guys in my band are Memphis natives or nearly-lifetime residents.”

With the band’s ties to Memphis, a city awash in legendary, soulful horn sections, it was inevitable that Lucero would one day make horns a permanent part of the act, but it wasn’t always that way.

“I started out playing in a bunch of bands, mostly bass,” said Nichols. “It was tough putting a band together. I hadn’t played much guitar. And then I met [Lucero co-founder] Brian Venable, and even though he didn’t have any experience, or musical knowledge, or skill, he was willing. I took what I could get. I learned to play guitar, he learned from me, and we started this band.”

While kind of always broadly categorized as a “roots” band, Lucero’s early reputation was forged in the punk clubs in and around Memphis.

But eventually the band earned a reputation in the punk world by being almost anti-punk. Once again, Nichols says rules got in the way.

No rules, just right

“We started off, me and Brian, going to punk rock shows in the early ‘90s,” said Nichols, “and one of the attractions was that it wasn’t playing by the same old rules. Then over time there started to be more and more rules associated with punk; you could wear this, but you couldn’t wear that. You could do this, but not that, and so at the very beginning we started out as a slow, quiet, kind of wannabe-country band playing anything that sounded not-punk at punk rock shows. If we found a rule, we just wanted to break it, whether it was a punk rock rule, or somebody else’s rule, so ultimately we just started doing what we wanted to do, and that’s what we’ve done ever since; quiet country, to four-piece rock ‘n’ roll band, to acoustic, to a 10-piece rock ‘n roll horn band, and everything in between. We try to avoid rules.”

Gingrich seems to enjoy the anti-genre of Lucero, which reminds him of the multitude of alternative acts he used to enjoy in California, but not so much in Myrtle Beach.

“I’m not into mainstream country music,” said Gingrich, “but I like bluesy, modern southern rock, with the Memphis thing - for me, that’s kind of where Lucero is.”

That sound also appeals to roots rock enthusiast John Campbell, co-owner of the Dead Dog Saloon, host to more and more big roots rock and alt-country shows including Jason Isbell (twice), James McMurtry and others.

“I first came to know Lucero about five years ago,” said Campbell, who regularly treks to Charleston and Wilmington to catch his favorite acts. “I saw Lucero on a Top 10 list, checked them out - I have a soft spot for the alt-country stuff - I finally saw them in Charleston about three years ago at The Pour House, and I’ve been a rabid fan ever since.”

So how will a band that regularly plays big clubs and 1,000-seat theaters, fit in a Marsh Walk restaurant?

The Dog Grows Up

Well known as a popular menu-venue, hosting live cover bands seven nights a week with music going concurrently as patrons dine and socialize nearly yearlong, the Dead Dog aspires to be more.

“We’d love to be a mini-House of Blues,” said Campbell. “We take live music seriously here, regardless of who’s playing. From the sound system, to a full-time sound engineer, Jay Hodge, to lighting and even an expanded stage. We want to be a concert venue, too, and we started bringing in these A-listers a few years ago. Every show we’ve done has been successful. We started right away trying to get Lucero here, and things finally fell into place. They’re sort of ass-kickin’ rock n’ roll; Alt-country with an edge.”

Hosting a band such as Lucero is not cheap. The venue wants to (needs to) make money, but at least not losing any money is paramount to the business model; eventually hosting five-to-eight big shows annually.

“This is our first event we’re ticketing,” said Campbell. “You kind of have to understand our layout, but we have the center deck, which sits lower than our main bar and inside dining room. We expanded the stage to go across the width of the deck, and it’s somewhat moveable – we can take it in or out when we need to. We’ve been told, based on square footage, that we can fit around 240 (people), asses-to-elbows, standing on that center deck, and at the small dry-bar area near the main bar that looks out over the stage. For anyone that wants VIP bar service, and a close, very intimate encounter with Lucero, or other bands we bring in, this $20 ticket is their assurance that they make that connection.”

The Lucero concert is free to attend and enjoy from all other sections of the venue, but only those with tickets will be allowed on the center deck.

“It’s first-come-first-served,” said Campbell, “but even if you’re the last person in, you’ll still have a great time and be able to enjoy the band. We’re working on a closed circuit link and may have it ready for this show. If so, you’ll be able to sit at the inside bar be able to see the concert on any of the big screens, and hear it , too, as we have sound piped from the sound board throughout – we’re working on it.”

It’s a trial by fire.

“This is an experiment,” said Campbell. “We pride ourselves, like the rest of the Marsh Walk venues, on offering free live music, and we’ll never stop doing that. But limited ticketing for a small VIP section seems to make sense. Well see how it goes, but so far ticket sales are promising.”

Bars or stadiums?

Lucero is at that place in its career where shows such as Tuesday’s at the Dead Dog, are still possible; the band is big but not too big. And Nichols doesn’t seem to mind. In fact he says he’s most comfortable performing in a bar atmosphere.

“I don’t mind hanging out in bars and watching bands and hearing live music,” said Nichols, “so getting to do that all across the country is kind of nice. After touring for a while you get to know the bars, and the bartenders, and the bands that play there. It feels like home, even if it isn’t. Playing in these places that feel like your neighborhood bar, and to have so many, is cool thing. We play 1,000-seat theaters now and then, medium sized theaters and bars small and large, and they can all be good in their own ways, but usually the smaller venues are where we have the most fun, and feel the most the natural.”

Nichols may like the small venue aspect of his career but that doesn’t stop him from pursuing more, and staying open to opportunities. His solo song “The Last Pale Light of the West” was featured on an episode of “The Walking Dead” on AMC in 2013, exposing the gravely-whiskey-throated laments of Nichols to a wider audience. Hundreds of thousands of fans new and old will see Lucero as it tours with the Dropkick Murphys on its upcoming St. Patrick’s Day Tour. Arguably Lucero may not be as hidden in the shadows as one might think.

Into the Mainstream?

“I can probably name 20 bands like Lucero,” said Gingrich. “They’re just not commercial, it’s almost as if they choose to stay underground – they’re the hardest working bands, constantly touring.”

So what keeps Lucero from being the next internationally known roots band such as Mumford & Sons, Avett Brothers, etc.?

“It takes one or two catchy songs that you’re able to get on the radio, or take off on social media,” continued Gingrich. “You could name a million bands that are just phenomenal, and yet nobody knows about them. These bands can kind of make money, they tour, and some people know who they are. People who know music will know Lucero. I mentioned to a friend I had tickets for Lucero, and I didn’t think he’d know who they were, and he said ‘I’ve got all of their albums’.”

Even my dad, who’s pushing 70, said, ‘Oh yeah, I love that band – they’re [song] was on that [HBO] show “Treme.” It’s the same with Jason Isbell. We were watching ‘Sons of Anarchy’ and one of his songs popped on there.”

Quiet Connections

In our interview Nichols never mentioned his Hollywood connections and his work on “Mud,” writing the score for the critically acclaimed Matthew McConaughey / Reese Witherspoon drama. Nichols’ younger brother, Jeff Nichols, is a director and the screenwriter behind the movie.

Lucero’s Nichols is behind songs featured on “Shotgun Stories,” “Take Shelter,” MTV’s “$5 Cover,” where he also tried out his acting chops.

He said in an interview with Speakercreatures.com, “I saw the playback and said ‘Nope, not interested in that anymore. Not quitting my day job any time soon.’”

The arc of Nichols’ and Lucero’s career is seemingly along a healthy path as the band tours on its most recent studio project “Women & Work,” and an upcoming live album, along with the 2103 four-song EP “Texas & Tennessee.”

Nichols says he has a happy, healthy relationship with his record label, ATO, and his management company, two things you rarely hear from rock artists. He has a wish list though.

“I would love to do “Austin City Limits,” it’s a major goal,” he said.

“We’ve played their festival in Austin, but never the [TV] show. Hopefully that’s something we can do soon. In the past Lucero has been rough around the edges, and we can be a little raggedy for some of these fancier shows, but with the band as it is now; with keyboards and horns, we’re playing better live shows than we’ve ever played before; so maybe some of these things will start coming together for us.”

Local fan Gingrich agrees.

“It seems like Lucero is maturing,” said Gingrich, “adding instruments, getting better and better. So you never know what the future holds.” But going mainstream isn’t necessarily Lucero’s goal.

“We like our independence,” said Nichols. “We’re comfortable living on the fringes of what some would call normal.”

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