Sign up for our newsletters    

Baltimore City Paper home page.

Late Night Lament: Lucero at Sonar, March 31

April 6, 2010

Ben Nichols, the lead singer of Lucero, has one of those raspy rock-n-roll voices like Tom Waits, Joe Cocker, or Joe Tex, where the struggle to push through all that catarrh in the throat contributes as much to the music as the notes that finally emerge. Nichols hasn’t always had control of that rasp; sometimes he has allowed the lyrics to get lost in the gargle. But when he allows the gravel in his windpipe to frame the words rather than eclipse them, he is one of the most impressive rock-n-roll singers of his generation.

It was after 1 a.m. Thursday morning at the Sonar Lounge when Nichols led Lucero through one of his greatest ballads, the country-rock lament of “Darken My Door.” The song takes the form of a late-night, drunken phone call to a wronged lover, asking for forgiveness and her return, and a perfect convergence of time, voice, and inebriation allowed Nichols to recreate such a conversation perfectly. It began with him warbling forlornly over a sparse rhythm and Todd Beene’s pedal-steel guitar, but when the number shifted from apology to negotiation, Rick Steff’s piano and the three-man horn section kicked in and the vocal strengthened in renewed confidence.

That song from last year’s breakthrough album, 1372 Overton Park, segued into “Tears Don’t Matter Much” from That Much Further West, released back in 2003 when Lucero was still a Memphis quartet. The band that came to Baltimore this week was a nonet, with the original two-guitars-bass-and-drums line-up now supplemented by keys, steel, trumpet, tenor sax, and baritone sax. These extra numbers not only provided fuller harmonies and a more muscular oomph but also broadened the sonic palette beyond Lucero’s original country-punk to incorporate its hometown’s R&B history. As a result, all its older songs sound richer than they did before.

“Tears Don’t Matter Much” segued into the title track from 2005 album, Nobody’s Darlings. A melancholy lament for the slow death of rock-n-roll dreams, the song was much stronger in its new R&B arrangement. Nichols, his scrawny, tattooed arms sticking out of his plain white T-shirt, noted that his band has never been a media or industry favorite—”We ain’t nobody’s darlings; we never stood a chance”—not with anger but with the same weary realism that he had described fickle lovers and self-destructive friends.

But when the ache was underlined by the steel guitar, expanded by the Memphis horns, and topped off by bristling guitars, a stubborn resilience entered Nichols’ rasp, as if to explain why he’s still on the road, still believing that he doesn’t need any favors to get heard. At that moment, playing for a dwindling, post-midnight crowd on a weekday night in Baltimore, Lucero sounded like the most underrated rock-n-roll band in America.