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Live Review: Lucero w/ William Matheny @ The Birchmere — 5/21/24

Memphis is one of the most important cities in American music, a place where the blues and country and R&B met and gave birth to rock n’ roll in the ’50s. And it’s still a hub of great music today: Witness Lucero, a fantastic rock band that straddles alt-country and heartland rock, and represents its home city with great pride.

In a recent show, their first time at The Birchmere, the Ben Nichols-fronted band played their anthemic songs to an audience that couldn’t get enough.

Nichols showed his wry his wry humor throughout the set at The Birchmere on May 21. Introducing “Coffin Nails,” he told the audience, “This takes place back in Arkansas,” his home state. “We figure you love your families in Virginia as much we do in Arkansas.” I couldn’t make out what was shouted at Ben in response to this, but he replied, “Come on, surely you can’t argue with that!” (I’m reminded of an exchange I recently had on social media. Someone posted, “People will argue about anything,” and I replied, “No they won’t.”) “Coffin Nails” is about Ben’s grandfather and great-grandfather, who are veterans of WWII and WWI, respectively.

While it’s not at all about his family, the song “Loving,” which Ben performed on acoustic guitar accompanied on just the keys by Rick Stubblefield, does have a family connection. Ben’s brother, Mike, is an acclaimed filmmaker, and among the movies he’s directed is Loving, which tells the story of the Virginia interracial couple whose case went to the Supreme Court (Loving v Virginia), which declared laws banning interracial marriage unconstitutional.

Watch Lucero perform “Loving” live for Paste Studios via YouTube:

Lucero released their latest album, Should’ve Learned By Now, a year ago in February. Ben quipped that, as the title suggested, they have not, in fact, learned. During their set, they only visited this material once, in the middle of the set, with “One Last FU.” Nichols prefaced the song by saying, “It’s not about you, specifically,” and after the band finished playing it, he said, “This is a such a nice place, and you seem like lovely people. I’m so sorry.” He cued up Rick to “play a nice one,” and the band launched into “Always Been You.”

The set drew on songs from across their 20 years of recorded material, beginning with the title cut from their third album, 2003’s That Much Further West, followed by “On My Way Downtown” and “To My Dearest Wife.” Ben introduced “Darling, Do You Gamble?” as “one of the few songs we play that’s appropriate for a wedding or an anniversary.” It was requested, he said, by Kristin, who he dedicated it to. After finishing the song, he admitted, “Yes, I did steal some Townes Van Zandt lyrics for this song,” referring to “skin of iron” and “breath of kerosene,” which come from the classic song “Pancho and Lefty.” He continued, “If Old Crow Medicine Show can cowrite a song with Bob Dylan (“Wagon Wheel”), I can write a song with Townes Van Zandt.” The title, he explained, comes from what Townes said when he met his third wife at a bar.

The set continued with “And We Fell,” then “I’ll Just Fall.” Ben switched to acoustic guitar for “Texas & Tennessee,” which he described as “as close to country” as the band gets.

Watch Lucero perform “Texas & Tennessee” Live for KUTX 98.9 on YouTube:

A stripped down portion of the evening followed, with Ben on his acoustic, accompanied by Rick on the keys, that included “Loving” and “In Lonesome Times.” He then told the audience, “We’ll bring the boys back and play something as depressing, but louder.” The band came back and did “Among The Ghosts,” followed by “Here At The Starlite,” “Nights Like These,” and “Tears Don’t Matter Much.” Ben honored one more request, for “Toadvine,” before finishing the evening’s performance with “It Gets Worst At Night.”

Before Lucero took the stage, West Virginia singer-songwriter William Matheny played a 30-minute opening set. When he took the stage, he said, “I always dreamed of seeing my name in LED lights.” After kicking things off with “Late Blooming Forever,” he mentioned all the prestigious artists who have performed at The Birchmere and pivoted into joking, “I can’t help but think of all the germs that must be on this microphone.”

The set continued with “Material Witness” and “Strange Constellations,” then “Christian Name,” which is about “driving around America in a Chevrolet Express van playing music. I’ve been told you have to what you know. Welcome to VH1 storytellers.” Before playing “May The Sweet Bird of Youth Fly Up Your Nose,” he told the audience he dropped out of high school to work in his parents video store. Around that time, he said, his mother got involved with the Elks Lodge, and there was a couple who had “knockdown, drag-out fights,” that inspired the song. (I don’t know what my parents were doing in West Virginia!) He finished his set with “Living Half To Death.”

Matheny was a fine complement to Lucero, with excellent songs and a sense of humor that matched Nichols’. Lucero, as always, had great songs, and they rocked hard and loud, but not so much that they overwhelmed the lyrics. Several times during the show, Ben thanked the audience for coming out on a Tuesday, but it was absolutely worth it: Lucero is always a great show, on any day of the week. 

Here are some photos of Lucero performing at The Birchmere on May 21, 2024. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Steve Satzberg.

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