At this point, Lucero is calling their own shots, very comfortable and in control over their current status. They command big crowds and have done as well as any band at bridging the gap between fan and performer, always accessible before and after the show for that selfie, shot, or handshake, and even on social media to debate songs played or not the night before. Their last album, “All a Man Should Do” (2015), was a breakthrough after a couple great, but transitional, albums before it, thrusting them from alt-country-whiskey-drenched-cowpunk (albeit done with exceptional songwriting and arrangements) to the forefront of Memphis Rock And Roll. They’re not quite the road dogs they have been in previous years, with their families growing back home, but they’re still at their best on stage, with the lineup of all four original members still intact, plus piano/accordion player Rick Steff, who fits so well he may as well have been there from the start.
A Lucero show is a bit of a marathon, with frontman Ben Nichols calling out songs based on his mood, audience requests, intensity of the room, and various other factors. You can be pretty sure that they’ll dig deep into the back-catalog, but the newer stuff will be represented heavily as well. They smile a lot, and there’s plenty of banter with the die-hards up front. At times you get the sense that they’d be at least as happy to tone it down a bit and play to a more restrained, listening room that isn’t as drenched in alcohol & testosterone, but they know what (and who) they’re there for and are happy to oblige. There was a time when every Lucero show in Detroit would start with a mosh pit and quickly break down into a fistfight or two by the end of the first song. It happened like clockwork for years. More recently, however, the ratio of dudes to ladies has started to slowly level out, quieter songs are played early to keep tensions low, and a general “look out for each other” attitude at shows may help too.
Critics cite Nichols’ gravely voice, their lack of harmonies, and the limited subject matter of their material as reasons they’ve failed to connect, and while those are legitimate reasons to cast a band off, I’ll come to Lucero’s defense. They’re every bit a working band at the top of their game on stage and album, setting all pretense aside, and putting it out there for whoever wants to listen - and their audience continues to grow. Their songs have always been more diverse than they've received credit for, but their most recent records have widened the trajectory of their lyrics and music significantly. They have the chemistry and confidence of a band that's been together forever and has each other's backs. There's a certain comfort in seeing them on stage together. Some critics' darlings in the roots-rock circuit wish they could put the same face forward.
Lucero demonstrated every aspect of all this both nights at the Loving Touch, a seedy massage parlor turned hip music venue in Ferndale, one of Detroit's more eclectic suburbs. Wednesday’s crowd was about half that of Thursday’s, but I thought they were a little looser and rambunctious on the first night. There was more alcohol going down, and even with the smaller crowd, they seemed a little more determined. The Thursday show was a little more focused and flowing, and the two shows together made great bookends for the different faces of the band. They play long sets, and each new song gets a round of applause from some fans who call it a favorite.
Columbus, Ohio’s Two Cow Garage is in a bit of a different spot, but there are a lot of similarities too. They’ve been around about as long as Lucero, and God knows they’ve worked every bit as hard, but the big crowds and universal accolades have somehow proven more difficult to come by. Micah Schnabel (vocals/guitar) and Shane Sweeney (vocals/bass) with temporary fill-ins guitarist Jay Gasper and drummer George Hondroulis (both from Lydia Loveless’ band, George in his second stint as TCG drummer) don’t necessarily walk on stage with any swagger or confidence that the sale is imminent. They still have a lot to prove, and the urgency and intensity in their performance is a direct correlation to the messages in their more recent songs - this world of ours is an f'd up mess and we’re all in this together, so let’s try to figure it out, Goddamnit. The songs that Shane and Micah write stand up to, or eclipse, those of any working American rock and roll band today, but their trump card is their sincerity, and you can see it in their eyes and hear it in their voices - there’s no denying that they mean what they’re saying and doing, and that their message is flowing through the blood in their great big hearts.
For the first time in years we were treated to some deep-cuts from earlier albums at these shows (thanks in part to Hondroulis knowledge of the catalog), material largely discarded by the band since they intentionally metamorphosed out of their roots/Americana shell into a new world of rock and roll poetry and personal politics. Gasper’s guitar added a fresh punk element to the music, at times noisy and discordant, and at others pretty and melodic. I could see these two temps working out long-term, but sharing duties in Lydia’s band would be logistically tough.
They’re a challenging band - sure, you can sing along while you sip that 24 oz. PBR, but you’re not off the hook when it comes to being a better person, treating other people with respect, and doing your part to make your circle a better place. It's not all a call to arms, though, there’s a fun side too, demonstrated after Shane gave the obligatory “We have merch” speech, and Micah responded that he promised to spend any cash “irresponsibly” as soon as he could get his tattooed paws on it. Strong messages and noble personas aside, the songs are just great, with sing-along hooks and harmonies. They’re the complete package.
The Lucero/Two Cow Garage bill makes all the sense in the world. There’s no reason anyone who likes Lucero wouldn’t get Two Cow Garage, and fans of Two Cow Garage seem a natural fit for Lucero’s fan base. American rock and roll comes in so many forms, but these bands have the market cornered when it’s down to guts, execution, and intensity combined with a unique, personal connection to their audience that other bands just don't. People in Ferndale seemed to get it, and this tour was one of the more memorable double bills to come through this area in some time.
Thanks to Jill E. Bean for some of the Lucero pics.
Jeremy Porter lives near Detroit and fronts the rock and roll band Jeremy Porter And The Tucos. Follow them on Facebook to read his road-blog chronicling their adventures and see his photo series documenting the disgusting bathrooms in the dives they play. He's a whiskey snob, an unapologetic fan of "good" metal, and couldn't really care less about the UofM - OSU rivalry since he once saw The Stones at the Horseshoe. Still, go blue.