This theme was set early by singer/guitarist Patrick Baum of opening band the Highway Companion, and it permeated the night. Shots of whiskey were drank, tears fell into beer, couples held each other, fights broke out and rock music filled the room.
The St. Louis-based band with it's roots in rock, Americana and country obviously feels a kindred spirit for the Memphis-based headliner, Lucero. During the set, Baum advised they had even learned a lesson in music professionalism from the band, "This is our second time opening for Lucero. First time we played one of their songs and they got mad and came out and opened their set with it. We'll never do that again." Yet, in a perfect scenario of a Lucero song, Baum proclaimed before playing their original song "Young and Beautiful," "I like this song. It's about a girl. She's here."
With songs that dig into your soul, the Highway Companion carry on the tradition of St. Louis groups like Uncle Tupelo and the Bottle Rockets, yet add their own influences to complete their own sound. This was evidenced by the inclusion of the Bruce Springsteen classic, "Dancing in the Dark," in their set. The band picked an appropriate cover that fit the theme while giving it their own darker treatment which updated the '80s production of the original.
The surroundings at Plush, with an air of upscale chic -- statues, velvet drapes, a bar decorated with tile and glass -- seemed slightly out of place for Lucero, a band used to playing dark, beer-soaked bars all these years. None of this, however, deterred their contingent of diehard fans from making the trip to midtown to hoist several PBR tallboys. For the fans, it's all about the strong link to the songs they came to hear and the emotions left on the stage.
As referenced above, Lucero singer and rhythm guitarist Ben Nichols writes songs about mercurial relationships that has the protagonist constantly trying to win back the heart of a girl; the heart that he himself has broken. Last night, this dynamic of his songwriting was laid bare like the proverbial heart Nichols wears on his sleeve.
Kicking the set off with the riff heavy "Sounds of the City," one of the strongest songs from their 2009 record "1372 Overton Park," the group set the emotional tone perfectly. The song describes the feeling of being a music fan in love: "I want to take you out to a show. I want to kiss you while the band is playing rock 'n roll." Though, instead of ratcheting up the energy, the band brought the energy down for the lead tracks of their latest album, "Women & Work," the short intro "Downtown" and "On My Way Downtown." With his proclivity for writing songs that discuss going downtown, you'd think that Nichols would save time and just move there.
Readings of "Nights Like These," a cover of Jawbreaker's "Kiss the Bottle" and "Hey Darling Do You Gamble?" continued the mood of melancholy weepers as the band dipped back into songs that spanned their older catalog.
With this new album, Lucero jumped feet first into the deep end of Memphis soul, something that seems to give their older songs deeper poignancy due to the addition of Memphis professionals Jim Spake and Scott Thompson on horns to compliment the organ work by Rick Steff. "Women & Work" brought the power of the horn sections to bear. Launching into "Juniper," a bluesy track full of soul from the new album, Nichols turned to the rest of the band and said, "Let's play that one that nobody likes, but everyone dances to."
Almost halfway through the set Nichols admitted, "I'm not nearly drunk enough to be in St. Louis right now," which prompted the audience to immediately put big shots of whiskey in the band's hands. This only seemed to exacerbate the downtrodden mood as "Goodbye Again" furthered the Memphis soul vibe. Nichols then apologized to the crowd that they had caught the band on an off night; a statement which couldn't be farther from the truth, as even an "off night" for this band can be remarkable.
Just before the encore started, Nichols noted his appreciation of the crowd's patience with the band. "Thank you for listening to Sunday morning music on a Friday night." The group brought the energy level back up for "That Much Further West" and "Tears Don't Matter Much," two songs that usually have the crowd spraying each other with beer. But this time, the crowd, subdued by the set, sang along and just pushed their hands in the air.
The forlorn nature of the set continued into the encore. Adding their choice of a cover to the evening, the Bill Withers 1970 classic "Ain't No Sunshine," Lucero brought the new sound of the band full circle. Ending the performance with the closing track from the new album, "Go Easy," Lucero showed they are not afraid to end on a low note if the mood allows. Still, no one left at the end exited the venue unhappy, but thoughts about heartbreak and lost loves were thick in the air. Nichols made damn sure of that.