Thousands of bands and musicians traveled to Austin, Texas, last week for the annual South By Southwest Music Festival, the biggest industry-oriented live-music fest in existence, where performers range from international icons (Bruce Springsteen, giving a three-hour preview of his new tour to a couple thousand ticket-lottery winners. Yes, I was one.) to unknown street buskers, with everything in between. And, as usual, the Memphis-connected action was plentiful, both on the official grid (a work-in-progress documentary screening on '70s cult band Big Star, followed by an all-star concert performance of the band's final album, Third/Sister Lovers) and off (a now-annual Goner Records showcase at the club Beerland).
But no Memphis act had a more active and purposeful SXSW this year than Lucero, the now-veteran local stalwarts who released their eighth album, Women & Work, the day before the music festival began and departed Austin on a six-week, coast-to-coast headlining tour in support of the album.
Absent an early, one-album hiatus by guitarist Brian Venable, the same four core members (Venable, frontman Ben Nichols, bassist John C. Stubblefield, drummer Roy Berry) of Lucero have been on the road together for probably close to 200 concerts a year for more than a decade.
But as the band left Memphis after a local listening party for the new album two weeks ago, it wasn't four guys in a van like in the early days. It was 12 people on a bus.
Over their past three albums, Lucero has expanded, first adding longtime Memphis session ace Rick Steff (keyboards, accordion, whatever else he gets his hands on) as a full-time member after 2006's Rebels, Rogues, & Sworn Brothers, then Little Rock-based pedal-steel player Todd Beene on 2009's 1372 Overton Park. And on Women & Work, saxophonist Jim Spake and trumpeter Scott Thompson became auxiliary members of the band, fully collaborating in-studio and joining them on the road when possible. Throw in a tour manager, a merchandise person, and two sound techs/roadies, and Lucero's almost a mobile industry these days.
The band pulled into Austin last Thursday morning, on the second full day of the music portion of the festival, just a couple of hours before their first show, an early-afternoon appearance at the outdoor venue Stubb's, at a party thrown by the band's management company, Red Light.
It was the first of six full-band shows in three days in Austin, augmented by a radio appearance by Nichols and Venable and an encore performance of Alex Chilton's solo single "Bangkok" at Thursday night's Big Star event, where Nichols was joined by Steff and Spake. (Nichols was learning the song earlier in the day off a live recording Spake had put on his phone.)
The SXSW album/tour launch — "If it wasn't an accident, it wasn't our idea," Nichols says of the timing — showcased the long-running band in a surprisingly fresh, contented place.
"Good morning, I feel like death," Nichols announced to the afternoon crowd. But you wouldn't have known it. Working without a set list for the daytime gig, this wasn't loose in the manner of some past Lucero performances, where an inebriated Nichols might take requests from a shouting crowd and the band might muddle around getting themselves together between songs. This time, Nichols was more akin to a basketball coach, calling out plays from the sidelines, with the band instantly locking into the songs Nichols was selecting on the fly.
The band wrapped up its three-day whirlwind — which included a nighttime showcase alongside indie-rock legends Dinosaur Jr. and a daytime gig at a party sponsored by popular music blog Brooklyn Vegan — at Cedar Street Courtyard on Saturday night, where they headlined their own "Lucero Family Picnic" showcase, the rare artists in town to host and curate their own night on the official schedule.
"They gave us our own slot," Nichols says, smiling. "The first few years we applied, they wouldn't even let us play."
The show opened with Memphis' Star & Micey, the folk-rock ensemble reduced to its three core members and playing a spirited set with foot percussion augmenting their two acoustic guitars and bass. And it continued with other hand-picked acts made up of sometime tourmates: Nashville's Glossary, Baltimore's raucous, piano-based J. Roddy Walston & the Business, intriguing Iowa troubadour William Elliott Whitmore, and punk-folk rabble-rouser Chuck Ragan.
Stubblefield emcee'd the show, introducing the bands. Nichols watched Whitmore appreciatively from the side of the stage then retired at the back of the indoor/outdoor venue for a more relaxed view. Venable sat at a table near the bar and with a sight line to the stage, appreciatively greeting a series of fans and well-wishers.
Onstage, as during their opening show Thursday, the band was crisp, and the new material, in particular, really shined: The head-nodding boogie riffs and shimmying rhythms of "On the Way Downtown." The barrelhouse piano and punching horns of "Women & Work." ("This song is called 'Women & Work,'" Nichols announced. "It's about tequila.") The swaggering guitar and coiled groove of "Juniper," the closest the band has ever come to a straight blues song.
On "Juniper," Nichols suffered a guitar mishap on the opening verse but casually set his instrument down in stride and took the mic stand in both hands to keep belting out the song. Always a striking singer, Nichols' voice has somehow gotten less raspy over the past couple of years, and his vocals more ambitious and confident. And the fans up front were dancing and singing along with songs from an album less than a week old, something Nichols acknowledged from the stage.
While the band draws from all its albums — they played songs from six of their eight albums in their first dozen selections at Cedar Street Courtyard — Nichols says that most requests tend to come from the first two albums and the last couple. This makes sense given a reverse bell curve of an artistic arc that Nichols more or less acknowledges.
Early on, Lucero blended country and punk with a novel sense of dynamics and emotion. Especially live, Berry's sixth-sense drum work essentially took the lead, with strong support from Stubblefield, often on an upright bass, and tasteful, simple guitar lines from Nichols and Venable. The music had so much space it often seemed on the verge of falling apart, but the band knew just when to grab a song and pull it back together. "Alt country" bands were legion a dozen years ago, when Lucero first emerged. But none sounded quite like this.
Then, as the band toured more, their fan base expanded, shows became rowdier, and Lucero's sound flattened out. Mid-career albums like 2003's That Much Further West and 2005's Nobody's Darling are fine works, but they're more conventional, rootsy bar-band records. Lucero's live shows became messier but less musically exciting.
"In the middle, we had growing pains," Nichols acknowledges. "I was drinking too much, and we weren't really playing well as a band. When we added Rick Steff, a light came on. It brought the musicality of the band up, and we had to step up our game."
"When Rick came on board, we had to act right because we had company," Venable says with a laugh. "Then he got comfortable. But really we just grew up."
Adding Steff's classic-rock piano and keyboard work on Rebels, Rogues, and Sworn Brothers was the first step toward adding space and dynamism back into the band's music, an evolution that feels completed on Women & Work.
"We've been stretching our boundaries," Nichols says of the keys, steel guitar, and horn additions. "The whole thing when we started was we didn't like the rules of the [punk] scene we were in. So we started playing the slow, country-tinged stuff. But, after a while, there's a whole new batch of rules for us, and we had to break them too."
"You start with more of a formula and then your real influences start coming in," Berry says of the band's evolution. "You let them in more and more and find your common ground with your fellow musicians. The overlap is kind of where the band lies. That's where we've gotten to, I think."
Women & Work represents a moment of stability for Lucero. For the first time, they recorded an album with the same producer (British pro Ted Hutt), in the same studio (Ardent), and with essentially the same instrumentation as their previous album.
"This album was less of a reinvention than a realization," says Stubblefield, who notes that the band's more deliberate process included extensive demo work with local studio owner Chris Scott before heading into Ardent.
"There was a different feeling going into Women & Work," Nichols says, and that difference seems to be a full embrace of a sound that started to emerge with 1372 Overton Park and in subsequent touring — that of a soulful, rhythmic Southern rock band, with country, R&B, and even blues elements co-existing comfortably.
The band dipped its collective toe in these waters with 1372 Overton Park's "Sixes and Sevens," but there was still a bit of tentativeness and self-consciousness. Women & Work, by contrast, is full immersion, the aforementioned new songs bolstered by material like the barroom soul of "It May Be Too Late," the near-ragtime lead-in to the Thin Lizzy-goes-South rock of "Like Lightning," and the Presleyan gospel of "Go Easy."
"Last time, it was like Lucero ... with horns," Stubblefield says. "The horns were added onto the top of what we were already doing. This time, they had been out on the road with us and were an integral part of the demos. It was more collaborative from the beginning. They were a part of the band."
"It's part on purpose and part inadvertent," Venable says of the band's evolution from punkish alt-country to rootsy bar band to soulful Southern-rock big band. "We're proud of home. The older you get, the more country you get to some degree." (Note: He means country, in the "Tramp" sense. Carla Thomas: "You're country, Otis. Straight from the Georgia woods." Otis Redding: "That's good.")
"We are Lucero, from Memphis, Tennessee," Venable continues. "We've said it across the world."
The new players and the bigger, more unabashedly pleasurable sound seem to have energized the band and Nichols in particular.
"It made me want to write better songs and be a better performer," he says. "I'm actually most comfortable with our newer songs. I think they're the most solid songs we have."
"We're having a good time doing what we're doing," Berry says.
If Women & Work represents an artistic comfort zone for the band, there's been plenty of change on the business side. After signing with Universal Records for 1372 Overton Park, the band has moved on to indie ATO for the new record, a by-product, to some degree, of signing with the label-connected Red Light Management.
"It was the standard major-label story," Nichols says of the band's short-lived corporate adventure. "An A&R guy likes you and signs you, then they get fired and no one knows what to do with you. It was an amicable split."
ATO, whose roster is full of bands in the Lucero vein, seems like a much better fit.
"They know how to work bands like us," Venable says. "They've got the Drive-By Truckers and My Morning Jacket and bands like that who tour a lot."
Nichols says he's much happier with the promotion the band is getting from its new management and label team and expresses hopes for landing a late-night television appearance, something he feels the new material — and his comfort with it — would be suited to.
These changes also come on the heels of a year of strategic touring.
"We'd been headlining shows for a while and hadn't really done many supporting slots," Nichols says. "It's hard to find a band that's right for us. And the tricky part of doing supporting slots is we aren't getting paid nearly as much."
But, despite those difficulties, the band felt like they needed make a touring detour in order to expand and freshen their fan base. So they went out with roots-punk legends Social Distortion in the winter of 2010/2011, hopped on the traveling punk festival the Warped Tour last summer, and, after recording at Ardent, spent a few weeks in Australia in support of Boston institution the Dropkick Murphys earlier this year.
"We'd hit a ceiling playing our own shows," Venable says. "We grunted and sweated and took pay cuts. It was work. But 15 weeks with Social Distortion put us in front of 1,000 new people every night."
That work and what is arguably a career-best new record has Lucero poised for perhaps their best national push yet and in what feels like an unusually stable and positive place for a band with more than a decade of hard touring on their odometer.
"You don't hear about bands doing 14 years much anymore," Venable said before leaving Memphis, packing clothes into a trunk at his Midtown home and musing over the band's evolution and a ride he almost missed once upon a time.
"But we always did it different. We all moved in together. We knew. One of the first things you learn — and everybody jokes about it, but nobody wants to do it — is you have to get out of town. You can get stuck playing the same small club at home, and there's nothing wrong with that, but you're not going to sell a lot of records doing that. There are bands that have good reasons not to commit, but we were at the point where we decided we could go retard our adulthood for a minute. Ben Nichols wanted it. He wanted it. For a while, I wanted it differently. I thought it was going to be four dudes in a van, taking on the world. Five dollar shows. And all of a sudden you run into a wall of compromise. But then I realized I wasn't doing anything spectacular either. So when I came back, it was with a new appreciation that this was a job.
"We always get asked when we're going to make it, and we joke about it. Man, we're playing music for a living. I made it. You're thinking about gold records and Cadillacs. For what we do and where we came from," Venable says, motioning around his cluttered dining room, "you're sitting in 'made it.'"
Lucero will be back in town in early May for a record-release party of some sort, a performance with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, and their annual "Lucero Family Picnic" in nearby Batesville, Arkansas, on May 19th.
For more SXSW coverage, including the influx of local rap/hip-hop artists in Austin and new albums on the way from Memphis-connected singer-songwriters Valerie June and Cory Branan, see the Flyer's pop culture blog, "Sing All Kinds," at memphisflyer.com.