The crowd was sparse when acoustic troubadour/jokester Jesse Irwin took the stage at 7:45 p.m. and, except for his beard, he is a dead ringer for comedian David Koechner. Like Koechner's character Todd Packer, from the U.S. version of "The Office," Irwin's music was crass and consisted of playful and at times painful, countrified limericks with references to necrophilia, uncles ejaculating on Christmas trees and rude twists on Mellencamp's "Jack and Diane." Irwin was clearly nervous and slammed Manhattans between abandoned versions of broken tunes such as the forced gem "Drinking for Two" which concerned itself with a pregnant woman getting schwasted in a St. Louis shithole bar.
At one point, Irwin joked about all the sugar at the bottom of his glass and proceeded to nearly choke to death on a cherry stem therein. Admittedly, some of his lyrics worked, "My uncle once fucked Jackie Onassis, making sure to cum on her glasses," but these pockets were discreet and fleeting.
The acoustic folk form used as comedy can be viable but it must be done with care and precision, neither of which Irwin possessed. Irwin closed with a butchered reimagining of Kenny Rogers' "The Gambler" and quit the stage. I felt like I had just watched an awful crash on Highway 40 and somehow couldn't take my eyes off Irwin's shirt, which simply read "Sexfist." My God.
Personal favorite, Kentucky Knife Fight, appeared next and belted out a well-studied and dialed-in set of barroom brawlers, filled with allusions to the insipient lonely, maiden crooks, thieves, cops and ill twists of fate. Knife Fight brought the thunder, as they always do, with precise guitar from Nate Jones and Curt Brewer, Jason Koenig's face-melting bass and Jason Holler's delightfully twisted vocals.
The band soared through most their 2013 album "Hush Hush" and the crowd packed against the stage. A few super fans jumped wildly, threw their hands in the air during the set's drops and screeching solos. "Hershel Walker" kicked off the set, showcasing the growl of Holler's perfectly strained vocal work during the song's chanted chorus. "Misshapen Love" thumped along as Holler belted the question, "Why do you wanna go and wreck my life?"
Holler dedicated the evening's performance to the memory of Bob Reuter, who was the first to play Kentucky Knife Fight on St. Louis radio, and what a good decision that was. "Father" seemed to pulse with Reuter's memory and featured help from two lovely women, one on cello and the other on violin, who helped during the song's culminating moments. Knife Fight cranked through "Love the Lonely," "Hush Hush," "Paper Flowers Two," "Bad Blood," "Dream So Sweet" and "Gunsmoke."
Lurcero, from Memphis, Tenn., strode onto the stage shortly after Kentucky Knife Fight. The band, covered in tattoos, was styled with epic facial hair, cutoff t-shirts and chains and it suited their brand of indie, country-pop. Lead singer and guitarist Ben Nichols told the audience that thanks to Irwin, he would not be making any jokes. The comment hung in the air, being both complimentary and deviously underhanded. As is evidenced by the lyrics of his songs, Nichols has a way of talking out both sides of his mouth.
"On My Way Downtown," blazed with piano accents, saxophone and trumpet, straddling the line between Bruce Springsteen and the Hold Steady with bombast and grace. Nichols sang, "Come on baby, can't you see that you're good for me?" as guitarist Brian Veneble teased slick and clear tones from the neck of his guitar.
"The Devil and Maggie Chascarillo" exuded a wistful punk rock vibe with a country spin and vibrant horns. The crowd cheered and clapped along as Nichols' raspy voice bled over the chorus, transporting the audience to the song's California streets. Lucero exuded a happy melancholy that towered infectious and irresistible.
"Slow Dancing" and "Sweetest Little Thing" were played with a satisfying introspection, offering contrast to the band's more recent horn-laced, upbeat rockers. "My Best Girl" found Nichols venerating a girl who provides both heartbreak and happiness and the complicated pain and emotion of the song swirled across the smiling faces of the crowd.
Toward the middle of their set, Lucero played through the entirety of their 2013 EP, "Texas & Tennessee." It was a pleasure to see how the songs hold together in a live setting and they revealed the care and purpose Lucero puts forth, both in the studio and on the stage. The songs were perfectly ordered, providing a moving arc of memories, nostalgia, loss, gain and everything in between.
The crowd thinned toward the end of Lucero's set as some had heard the one or two songs they drove out to hear, but the hardcore remained, swaying and tapping out Lucero's rhythms on the hips of their boys and girls, and finishing off the dregs of their last PBRs and the vespers of the night. The air thickened with importance as Nichols thanked the audience and played a few stripped down, acoustic numbers.
Lucero quit the stage to the chagrin of a shipwrecked audience, saddened at the prospect of the band moving onto the next town. But they also seemed happy they had the opportunity to share a blessed evening of country rock brimming with abandon, madness, happiness, heartbreak, pain, open highways, overpasses and rearview mirrors.
See you down the road, hopefully sooner rather than later, sweet Midwestern princes.