Lucero embraces Memphis soul; can the world be far behind?

The stars could finally be aligning for restless rockers Lucero

TWO DATES: LUCERO with Jonny Fritz

8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23; 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 24 | The Social, 54 N. Orange Ave. | 407-246-1419 | | $20

Lucero has never been much for expectations. Hell, they formed just to mess with ’em, playing traditional country to the punks before it was fashionable, back in the late ’90s.

“I had never been in a band before, but I wanted to start something that is the complete opposite,” says guitarist Brian Venable. “I wanted to go to the show space and play the softest, quietest music in the world in the middle of all these crazy, screaming punk bands.”

The core quartet – Venable, singer-guitarist Ben Nichols, bassist John Stubblefield and drummer Roy Berry – formed 16 years ago and struggled their way up on little labels, continually evolving their sound. The country of their first two albums gave way to an alt-country/Southern-rock blend reminiscent of the Drive-By Truckers. Then came Replacements-ish garage-twang, and garage-soul like Springsteen, only enthralled instead by Memphis.

That last move was abetted by the addition of stellar keyboardist Rick Steff (Cat Power, Dexy’s Midnight Runners) who helped deepen the music’s emotional palette. From there, they went to Universal Records for 1372 Overton Park, an ill-fated decision.

“Leave it to us to test the major-label waters when the whole industry shuts down,” Venable says. “When we signed to Universal, they had 13 people in the department. By the time we gave them the record a year later, they had three people in the office. It was a glorified distribution deal.”

Overton Park signaled the band’s most ambitious move to date – the addition of horns – a natural progression from the country-soul of the last album. Not that it was planned out. Not Lucero.

“I wanted a Rocket From the Crypt song, with rock horns. Having [arranger] Jim Spake available, he’s the horn equivalent of Rick Steff. He’s played on everything with everybody,” he says. “He played on that one tune, and we just couldn’t quit grinning and were [like] ‘do this song, do this song.’ Then we were like, ‘Put it on a slow song,’ and it was like we just wrote [’67 James Carr soul classic] ‘At the Dark End of the Street.’”

For their latest, Women & Work, they brought Spake in from the start and wrote with the horns, rather than adding them as an afterthought. While Overton Park’s a fine disc, the latest feels even more cohesive and tight. It doesn’t hurt that Nichols developed an appropriately gritty and hard-bitten-but-hopeful lyricism to match his gruff, whiskey-scarred vocals.

They’re currently mixing down their first concert release. While these days live discs typically sell poorly, Lucero could be the exception because their live shows are epic affairs. For a while they were doing an acoustic set in the middle of the performances, featuring songs from last year’s Texas & Tennessee EP.

“It was a full band but stripped down, and kind of like everything, it morphs around,” Venable laughs. “My acoustic guitar shit the bed, and I’m trying to find a new one. And Ben’s got this new guitar. He’ll spend three days fooling with it and then not play it for three days. So the EP songs just kind of got incorporated into the whole set, and we just try to keep it dynamic.”

Lucero’s never been a sensation, but there’s a sense their timing might finally be right, thanks to all the renewed interest in roots/rock/soul. Venable laughs cautiously, “Yeah, well, I think one time we might actually be in time with everybody.”

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