Lucero at First Avenue, 4/4/12

First Avenue, Minneapolis
Wednesday, April 4, 2012

If the Replacements had come from Memphis they would have been Lucero. Hard-drinking, self-deprecating and hardly ever winning in the end, the punkish/alt-country band, led by Ben Nichols, have a slew of gravelly-voiced, gritty tales of woe and the other guy winning that are often familiar but, up until their latest release, Women & Work, had an inspired spin on them most of the time. As Wednesday night unfolded at First Avenue it became more and more obvious that W&W is very possibly the weakest offering by the band thus far, however. Only time will tell if it was just a misstep.

The show opened with a couple of new ones, which were sort of fun, but as they started in with the brilliant "Nights Like These" from 2002's Tennessee it sort of wiped out what had come before it, a pattern that would continue for the rest of the two-hour set. The title track from Women & Work with its catchy, slightly funny chorus. "Women and work and booze in between" was one of the night's few standouts among the new material, even with Nichols botching the lyrics in the song's closing moments. "Sorry, I blacked out at the end there -- I blame my sobriety." He joked. But even so, a wrenching version of "The War" came soon after and reminded everyone what Lucero was capable of.

As the show continued, a pattern emerged: a couple of old songs that built up steam and then a new one that would drag the energy down again. The band seemed to be fighting with it the entire night but the new songs just don't fit in as well with the old material as they could or should. Bands should always be growing and willing to try new things but Lucero's older songs (even when they were new) had a worn patina on them; they were comfortable, lived in. The new songs didn't have that feel in the least. They seemed almost glittery by comparison. "All Sewn Up" from their self-titled 2001 debut was a perfect example of the former, while "Juniper" from the new record illustrated the latter perfectly.

As the set began to wind down, Nichols informed the band (and the crowd), "I'm going to get some whiskey. Play some jazz or some shit, I'll be right back." He returned a few moments later, the jazz number in full swing, with an open but nearly full bottle of Jameson -- a bottle that would be emptied by Nichols and slide guitarist Todd Beene by the end of the encore. They offered up an absolutely inspired version of "Tears Don't Matter Much" from 2005's Nobody's Darlings, complete with added horns (they tour with a horn section these days) and, ironically, it was the only time during the night that the horns didn't sound intrusive.

They left the stage and came back out for a five-song encore that was easily the strongest passage of the set. They pulled out some of their best songs, including "Drink 'Til We're Gone" and Nichols' ode to his guitar, "My Best Girl" plus a great, if shambolic, cover of the Replacements' "If Only You Were Lonely" ("Well, if we're going to fuck up a cover, it might as well be a Replacements song." Nichols wryly noted.) Two hours in they finally hit a good stride, but it seemed to be because of the absence of any new songs. Everyone knows you have to tour to support your new material, but it's sure a drag when that material sticks out like a sore thumb.

Critic's Bias: I had been listening to--and, honestly, defending -- Women & Work in the days leading up to this show but it was all for naught. When put directly up against their other songs, this new album just isn't up to snuff and I was forced to admit that on Wednesday night.

The Crowd: So much plaid. So many beards.

Overheard In The Crowd: "The guitarist [Brian Venable] looks bored as hell playing these new ones."

Random Notebook Dump: Lucero hits harder when the songs are slower and more introspective.

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