love letter to my favorite American rock band

by s.

My friend David texted me yesterday from where he stood at an outdoor show in 103 degree weather: “I know this is some preaching to the choir shit, but Lucero sound pretty perfect right now. Sitting on a porch drinking whiskey and lemonade perfect.”

(As far as friends go, David is pretty damn good at speaking to me in my own language.)

When you live in New York and you are of a certain age and demographic, you become accustomed to your larger friend circles liking many of the same bands. For example, it is a surprise when someone dislikes the National or Bon Iver; in such cases, it’s easy to assume they are just being contrary. Still, there is a large pocket of artists I really, really love that most of my friends seem to want nothing to do with, and I have the sneaking suspicion that this has something to do with our basic needs.

It is easy to assume that my favorite American rock band involves Tom Petty or Bruce Springsteen, and in fact I have been known to drink alone and argue with myself over who is truly the better artist. But there is a difference between “favorite” and “best”, and I’m a modern girl who grew up listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd. As such, a real American rock band worthy of my love is most likely as Southern as porches with whiskey and lemonade. It is not cool to love guitar rock, but I do. It is not cool to like things that get categorized as less cerebral, but don’t try to argue that with me during the second hour of a Drive-By Truckers show when they have just kicked in to “Let There Be Rock.” I won’t even hear what you’re saying.

What most of us are looking for in a favorite rock band is music that best represents our insides. This is why people really, really love the National: because Matt Berninger’s lyrics are as soft and cerebral as anything, but he feels no shame in drinking a bottle of wine and walking out into the crowd like a rock star. This is of course why people love the Hold Steady, because Craig Finn looks like any other dude, and he really loves baseball and the Replacements and singing songs about screwed up girls and the Midwest.

This is the best way to describe the way I feel about Lucero, a Tennesee rock band with a good five albums under their belts and a never-stop-touring ethic. In the last five years, I’ve seen them play to mosh pits at the Mercury Lounge, to a crowd at a barbeque in middle of a thunderstorm, to packed audiences at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, to quiet acoustics at their lead singer’s solo shows. (He tours even when the band is off-cycle; most recently, he did a short Southern tour on his motorcycle.) Their audience is skewed in strange directions: burly guys covered in tattoos, squealing crowds of underdressed girls, and a growing contingent of frat boys who exist just to spill their beers on you. And then there is me.

Lucero’s songs center around the following themes: girls, heartbreak, leaving, late nights, and whiskey. There is a close but converse relationship between what happens in Lucero songs and what happens in the songs of the Hold Steady. These men all drink too much, they get sad on behalf of the world, and they may not recognize where they wake up in the morning. But Lucero’s women are deft and dynamic, either the girl that gets away or the girl that gets on the back of your motorcycle. They are the girls that the guys in Hold Steady songs seem to have given up on finding.

(It is worth noting that the relationship between these two bands is less than imagined; Lucero’s Ben Nichols is the growly complement to Craig Finn’s vocals on the Hold Steady anthems “Constructive Summer” and “Magazines.”)

On stage, Nichols becomes the protagonist in his songs with ease. Bearded, tattoed, and full of jokes at his own expense, he begins each show with a bottle of Jameson and ends it hours later, sometimes at the end of the bottle, sometimes unable to stand up completely straight but fully in command of his guitar. In this sense, Lucero are the obvious modern answer to the Replacements, but Nichols has managed to beat Westerberg at his own game: he only starts forgetting his own songs after he’s already delivered a perfect rock and roll setlist.

Occasionally, I am called on to explain my attachment to a Southern rock band that most of my friends have barely heard of. What I can say about them is this: Lucero is the friend you don’t see every day, but the one who stays out dancing, or who overstays their welcome but leaves you with a million fantastic stories in return. This friend is overly sentimental, and falls in love a little bit with every person they meet, and drinks a bit too much Jameson. They wear their heart on their tattooed sleeves, and they will occasionally say their favorite thing is a member of the opposite sex but really it’s rock and roll.

There is one Lucero song, in particular, that speaks both to my relationship with this band and also with myself: it’s the first song on their fourth album, and the first song of theirs I fell in love with. “You used to love me,” Nichols sings, “running wild, sleeping with the thieves. Come on, baby, what else would you have me be?”

That’s it, really: Lucero is the aural equivalent of running away and finding yourself drinking whiskey on a porch in a thunderstorm. It goes without saying that this is what my own insides look like, and come on, baby, what else would you have me be?

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