I love it when a terrific concert sneaks up on me.
I mean, it’s fun to go see a great band play a great show that you figured would be great when you walked in the door.
But there’s something special about going in with low or no expectations, only to find yourself grinning ear to ear halfway through a set, wowed by a band you didn’t think could wow you.
Tuesday night’s Lucero show at the Domino Room was like that for me. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Memphis, Tenn., roots-rock band has had a fine career filled with fine songs on fine albums.
But I’d never truly connected with any of it. I’m not sure why. Maybe I hadn’t given them enough of a chance because I burned out on alt-country years ago, or maybe you have to see ’em live to get it. Or, it could very well be that frontman Ben Nichols’ very-coarse-grit sandpaper voice was a hurdle I just couldn’t clear. (I like my vocals only so scruffy, I think.)
Whatever the case, the fact is that Lucero is a band that I didn’t think could wow me. But on Tuesday night, they did.
It wasn’t their wild antics or hilarious banter or jaw-dropping technical abilities that did it, either. None of those things happened.
This was more about a super-tight band skillfully playing compelling, catchy songs.
Who knew such a thing could work? (Insert winking emoticon here.)
First things first: A three-band bill shrunk when Portland’s I Can Lick Any SOB in the House (understandably) decided not to brave the mountain passes. So the night started with a long, solid set from Jon Snodgrass and Chad Price of Colorado’s Drag the River, whose downcast tunes and wonderful harmonies nicely warmed up the Domino Room, and a crowd that was small, but slowly growing in size. (Shout-out to whoever requested “Rangement.” Inspired choice.)
The duo played in front of a giant red Tennessee state flag, with an outline of the Volunteer State and Lucero’s logo plunked right in the center. It was a constant reminder that the big name of the night was still to come.
I didn’t realize just how big, however. As Lucero appeared, it was like clowns out of a Volkswagen; no fewer than eight guys crowded onto the Domino’s cozy stage: two on horns, one each on guitar, bass, drums, pedal steel and organ, plus the only guy with a microphone, Nichols.
The band kicked off with a slow-burning song that I didn’t recognize, plus a cover of “Kiss the Bottle” by the old pop-punk band Jawbreaker, and it took almost no time to realize just how much the horn section — Jim Spake on sax, Nahshon Benford on trumpet — added to the overall sound. In fact, I wish they’d been louder in the mix.
All night, those horns and Rick Steff’s keyboard work complemented Nichols’ blue-collar twang-punk with a welcome, heavy dose of Memphis soul. They added texture and color to the sound, and provided a bright, bouncy counterbalance to the gritty weight of Lucero’s songs.
As a whole, the band was fun to watch: heavily tattooed, bushy beards, looking like they hadn’t seen a laundromat since Dallas. Guitarist Brian Venable wore an ominous T-shirt bearing the name of sludge-metal band Kylesa and some psychedelic skull thing. Bassist John Stubblefield’s shirt had a zebra with angel wings on it.
But the star of the show was the seemingly humble and self-deprecating Nichols, who thanked a half-full Domino Room and said he didn’t expect half that big a crowd on the band’s first trip to Bend.
The guy just writes great songs. And they are twangy and punky, true. But at their heart, they’re simply great pop tunes that you can’t help but sway or tap along to. “Sixes and Sevens” showcased the band’s serious Stax Records swagger, thanks in large part to a killer horn riff. The lost-love lament of “Goodbye Again” featured some perfectly mournful pedal-steel swoons.
The highlight of the night, though, were a couple of fist-pumpers near the end of the set; the power-pop chug of “Johnny Davis” and the radio-ready, roller-coaster chorus of “Sweet Little Thing” ... well, remember that thing I said earlier about grinning from ear to ear? For me, those two songs were that moment on this night.
Like I said, I love it when a terrific concert sneaks up on me. And on Tuesday, Lucero snuck up on me, Tennessee ninja-style, and clubbed me over the head with one of the best shows I’ve seen in Bend this year.