Concert review: Lucero and John Henry & the Engine keep the alt-country and liquor flowing at Off Broadway, Friday, December 9 / Neff Connor

Lucero and John Henry & the Engine drew a rowdy, flannel-clad crowd last night to Off Broadway with their black-label brand of alternative country drinking music.

John Henry & the Engine opened to an already packed-to-the-walls room. Even with Off Broadway’s turning the long side wall bar into a corner counter, there was barely enough standing room for the masses of bearded and wool-capped alt-country enthusiasts. John Henry & the Engine appeared and played like an overcrowded bar was just their liquor of choice, performing heavy harmonica and organ-laden country tunes. The band was a great local choice as an opener for Lucero, with a similar style of rock swagger and smoky vocals.

Henry and his band spanned a range of ages, similar to the attending crowd. Performing the new song “My Head is like a Spinning Wheel,” the band showcased its tightness, surely earned playing the bar-room circuit. The leather coat-clad, guitar-strumming Henry moaned strong vocals to his bands’ whistling guitars and thick, low-end drums. I couldn’t tell if Henry was losing his voice by the end of the set or if he actually just smoked half a dozen cigarettes before taking the stage. Not that it mattered, since I had come to hear the similarly pack-a-day voice of Lucero’s Ben Nichols.

Later in the set, Henry dragged out an acoustic guitar. Normally, seeing an older band attempting to slow it down is cringe-worthy for me, but the band caught me totally off guard and played an even faster song than their previous electric guitar tunes. Besides a slower, solo keyboard song played by Henry, the band kept the half-way-to-drunk crowd’s attention with their loud rock ‘n’ roll numbers and country strummers.

The first thought I had when Lucero took the stage is how awesome it would be if the band scored a gritty, modern Western movie. But ultimately Lucero embodies musical spirit of their Memphis hometown. Amid whoops and whistles, Lucero turned out crowd favorites, one after another. All it took was a single guitar strum and the band’s fans would be begin yelling along to the words, pushing and fist pumping like they were at an old-school hardcore show.

With “Nights Like These,” the now fully drunk fans sang along knowingly to the words “It’s nights like these, that make me sleep all day.” The band had the appearance of a roadside trucker bar crew; half of the members looked like they could have toured with Bob Seger, who was across town at the Scottrade Center.

True to what vocalist Nichols promised in an interview with KDHX’s Scott Allen, Lucero’s new tunes from the upcoming “Women and Work” were cleaner than the country punk of “Tennessee” and “That Much Farther West.” Nichols announced a March release date for what will likely be a more polished batch of songs. I read the turn to the less aggressive vibe by Lucero as an attempt to age gracefully, which I think they pulled off wonderfully. One of the new songs opened with a western saloon piano bouncing about, with the rest of Lucero trading in grit for rockabilly riffs.

Nichols announced they were playing “a drinking song” when ripping out an awesomely countrified cover of classic ’90s punk band Jawbreaker’s “Kiss the Bottle.” There was a certain recalling of ’90s guitar punk throughout their entire set, especially on intro guitar licks and in the dynamics of song structures. “Darken My Door” from their 2009 release “1372 Overton Park” felt like a rough around the edges swing, perfect for Off Broadway’s converted barn feel. “Slow Dancing” sounded like a closer early in the set, with guitars sliding and the low key presence of vocals. A personal favorite, “Sixteen,” had even the most grizzled of attendees grooving along before the band launched into another good rocking song “Sweet Little Thing.”

During “Goodbye Again” Nichols paused to break up a fight while the band kept playing. Nichols looked right at the quarreling guys and said, “Come on now, you’re really going to do this during this song? If you can’t get along, go to different sides. You go there, and you go over there.” Nichols broke up the dispute like a veteran, this most likely not being the first time he’s had to do it from the stage. “Goodbye Again” easily turned out to be the saddest and most rock-bottom tune of the night, albeit in a calculated way.

I was pleasantly surprised to hear the band perform a heavier rendition of “Davy Brown” from Nichols’ solo release “The Last Pale Light in the West.” Later in the set, he joked that he didn’t like scotch, and that his announced preference would probably end up on the Internet by the next day.

In a set of upwards of 30 songs, Lucero covered a lot of ground in their deep back catalogue. By the end of the night, the band had appropriately name checked most every type of alcohol in the bar, either through lyrics or banter. With impressive stamina and an incredible penchant for delivering fast, smoke-filled tunes, Lucero proved that they’re still one of the best alt-country bands to gain recognition over the last decade.