There's always been something workmanlike about Memphis rockers Lucero. They don't make music as innovative or exciting as the Drive-By Truckers, nor do they jingle with the weird jewelry of alt.country brethren like Wilco. Instead, Lucero have plugged away for years on standard rock-country riffs, neither reinventing nor disappointing the form. They pick D chords the way bartenders pour drafts—not bad work if you can get it.
To that end, Lucero put in an honest two-hour shift Friday night at Webster Hall. After a few mild opening numbers, the eight piece found the pocket. By the main set's closer they were blasting pearl-snap soul like it was gospel brunch, with the high points coming mainly from Sam and Dave style sub-Motown rockers or Waste Land-y droners that made the band sound as though they were applying for a Calexico fellowship.
While Lucero excelled at the extremes, the mid-tempo numbers, of which there were many, ran together. This is the chief danger of the Skynyrd ditch Lucero digs in: by taming country's twang and softening rock's swagger, southern rock too often ends up a mashed potato, all starch and no flavor. Many of Lucero’s songs occupy this overcompromised middle ground that borrows from multiple genres without keeping anything of value.
But when the band found something it liked, all bets were off. Lucero’s boogie-woogie numbers, filigreed by Rick Steff's chimey keys, got the audience going. Two quiet tunes boasted a perfectly plaintive accordion, while a couple ballads were garnished only with the left-behind-beagle whine of Todd Beene's pedal steel. These sparse numbers shut the crowd up—even the cell-phones-cum-cameras were pocketed—and focused the ballroom on frontman Ben Nichols's lyrics, often to his credit, sometimes not. Nichols leans hard on Townes van Zandtian tropes of too many cigarettes and story-of-my-life rhymes. With cigarettes approaching $11 a pack, lines about smoking too much may soon be cheaper than smoking too much. And while we all love whiskey, I've got a confidential to the gentleman who whooped when Nichols took a shot of it on stage: you can see people drink bourbon anywhere, buddy.
Alas, this WHOOO WHISKEY vibe, voiced nightly at any cowboy-booted venue near you, just underlined the rote feel of the night, the haven't-we-done-all-this-before-ness of having done all this before. Introducing the last song, Nichols told the crowd, "It's probably not wise to close with two slow numbers in a row." As he shrugged, the punch line was so obvious you had to duck under the merch booth to miss it: "But we’ve never been known to do what's wise." The tattooed meathead next to me yelled, "But you don't give a shit!" and the rebel-rock play was complete. Country rock long ago crossed the line from tradition to tautology, and this exchange and the "Let's hear it for Friday night!" ones that preceded it could have been scripted before anybody even got a wristband. The whole thing was as perfunctory as closing sidework: somebody has to go through all this so we can clock in tomorrow and do it again. And Lucero, who admirably play over 200 shows a year, probably will be back through soon. It's their job.