My old man always said that it’s good to know somebody out there owes you a beer. When the Bikeriders Western Ride rolls in, you get the feeling somebody owes them a drink in every town.
“Bikeriders”, a song from Lucero’s 2005 album Nobody’s Darlings, was inspired by Danny Lyon’s photobook of the same name. As Nichols points out from stage, The Bikeriders Tour really started as a solo motorcycle run. Today, it has evolved into a traveling entourage with enough merch to rival a screen-printing outlet sale. With a portion of proceeds going to True South – an organization helping injured riders – it’s a full on micro-culture riding for a good cause.
Tattoo legend, Ink Master, and screen printing enthusiast Oliver Peck emceed the night, offering his signature Cheap Thrills apparel and personally greeting everyone within shouting distance. Joined by a hand-picked group of tattoo artists from his own Elm Street Tattoo as well as a few other shops, Peck and crew spent the afternoon at Flying Panther Tattoo in Golden Hill for a lucky few to score some out-of-state ink.
Nate Hall from Old Heavy Hands opened the night. Testing out new material acoustically, the southern charm of Hall’s folk songs cut through the room with distinction. An old buddy of mine used to call these kinds of songs “campfire music” and for Hall, it feels the most accurate. While Old Heavy Hands weaves in elements of bluegrass and classic southern rock, Hall’s solo set carried the band’s sensibilities with enough Appalachia to make everyone want to gather around the woodpile.
Longtime Lucero fans overwhelmed the room as Oliver Peck introduced Ben Nichols. The rightful heirs to the Jawbreaker throne, Lucero still have a devout following. As a songwriter and frontman, Nichols brought post-punk vulnerability to the blue-collar reverie of alt-country and sunk it in the great Mississippi like a six-pack in summer. A couple decades later, his raw-throated howl and bar room drawl still serve as the veritable antidote to the overly aesthetic Americana genre.
“Play Kiss the Bottle,” somebody yelled. “I don’t have to anymore,” Nichols replied, “Jawbreaker is playing shows again… We carried that torch for a long time.” The conversational tone of the evening only gained momentum from there. Requests were shouted faster than whiskey was passed to the stage, and if you’ve ever been to a Lucero show you know the whiskey flows swiftly in one direction.
The set started with “To My Dearest Wife” from Lucero’s new album, Among the Ghosts. Following an almost strict, new-solo-classic format, he worked his way through solo songs and classic Lucero tunes before playing others from the new record like “Always Been You.” At one point, Nichols gave the crowd a choice between hearing the record version or the version he plays his daughter before bed. Somebody yelled out for the record version and he obliged as the majority of the crowd mourned the lost opportunity.
Solo classics like “Davy Brown” and “The Last Pale Light in the West” were standout favorites but the crowd came to sing-a-long to Lucero tunes and they weren’t afraid to show it. Songs like “Texas & Tennessee” and “Nights Like These” were met with overwhelming excitement. While “The War” inspired church-like participation as a room full of buzzed parishioners shouted along to “three days in San Diego” – forcing Nichols to stop and regroup. “I got too excited about the San Diego part” he laughed before starting back into the verse.
In the alt-country, indie-roots music scene, lyrical clichés are as ubiquitous as tattoos but with Nichols its different. A sincere and intelligent songwriter, the literary prowess of his catalog cuts through the party, captivating even the most inebriated onlookers. The intimacy of the song can be startling. Like Bob Dylan, the songs casually divulge too much and resonates like a parable. And like Bob Dylan, you either love it, or you’re wrong.
Never too serious, but always sincere, Nichols is a rare songwriter and performer able to move through the audience with precision and abandon. The solo show is a different animal than Lucero and almost incomparable. While the power of the song is only amplified by Lucero, watching a master songwriter practice his craft alone carries a special cogency. As Lucero celebrates 20 years as a band, it’s more apparent than ever that Nichols’ songs really are just that damn good. And if the new Lucero album is any indication, they’ll continue to be for a long time.
Lucero will be performing on November 7th at the Observatory North Park.