A girl named Jenny lights her cigarette. She’s on the wrong side of town. It’s Saturday night. Ben Nichols opens up his car door and promises her an escape before it turns dawn.
Will they drive down Thunder Road, too?
“I Can Get Us Out Of Here” is one of many Springsteen-inspired songs on Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers, the sixth album from Lucero, the Memphis band Nichols fronts. “Darkness On The Edge Of Town, Nebraska and Born In The U.S.A. — you have everything you need right there,” he proclaims. “You have big rock ‘n’ roll songs from Born In The U.S.A., you have really quiet songs from Nebraska, and you have a nice in-between from Darkness.”
As the Boss has muted his sound through solo albums and a revisiting of the 1960s folk revival, a legion of younger bands, from Marah to the Drams, have summoned the bravado of his earlier years through albums seeking to capture that holy passion, irony free.
“You find it rarely in contemporary stuff,” Nichols says. “The majority of contemporary stuff nowadays, there’s a lack of honesty, lack of heart, and a problem with overproduction. Everything’s manufactured to sound the same because emo sells and the kids eat it up.”
Yet Lucero is the rare classic rock-minded band that plays to the emo faithful as often as it does to the Uncle Tupelo faction. The band has toured with torture punks Against Me!, Honorary Title and Taking Back Sunday, though Nichols admits that “16-year-old kids just scare the hell out of me — they can be a very tough crowd.”
“We’re not getting those shows because of our draw, we’re getting those shows because [the bands are] fans of ours,” he adds. “They are fans of ours, and we are fans of theirs.”
If Rebels is powered by an E Street vibe, it’s partly due to the recent recruitment of keyboardist Rick Steff, a Memphis native whose flourishes and flaming organ fills frame the songs with urgency. Steff, a longtime session player who has worked on records by the Twilight Singers, Hank Williams III and James Blood Ulmer, is currently doing time on the trainwreck otherwise known as the Cat Power tour. “We were lucky to catch him,” Nichols acknowledges. “He was just done with [the recent Cat Power record The Greatest] and preparing to go on tour.”
Lucero bassist John C. Stubblefield, who moonlights as a Memphis session player, introduced Steff to the band. “He had a good sense of the type of songs I was writing, how to tastefully just lay right in there,” Nichols says. “I got excited about it and wrote more stuff geared toward that classic rock E Street band type of sound. It’s something I’ve never been able to do before and it was really satisfying.”
Rebels indeed sounds like it’s stuck on the FM dial during vinyl’s glory years; pick out the references to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Blue Oyster Cult and — believe it — Asia. But Lucero is primarily a band with hardcore roots. Nichols’ dark romance sears with the hard stomping rhythms of Stubblefield and drummer Roy Berry, while Brian Venable’s chugging guitar matches their insistency.
The songs’ protagonists are continually underdogs: “You used to love me/A drunkard running wild out in the streets/C’mon baby, what else would you have me be?”. But Nichols’ true vulnerability shows in his voice. A twin to David Baerwald, it is shredded with anxiety; you can almost hear veins popping with each syllable.
“It’s never been the most cooperative,” he admits. Nichols remembers recording songs for the first time when he was 15, and the revelation that came with the playback.
“It was just awful,” he recalls. “I had to go outside and think how to get myself out of the situation. It took a little while to learn how to sing. I think part of it came from playing with really loud bands and having to push it full blast to be able to hear anything.”
The idea of joining a band flickered when he was young. “That’s always been the goal since I was 14,” Nichols says. He played music in high school and then at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, where he received a degree in history. He grew up in a household ruled by his father’s 45-rpm record collection, a treasure trove of 1950s rockabilly. (The elder Nichols had no use for anything after that point, believing that “the Beatles ruined rock and roll,” Ben says.)
Music was the family business too. Nichols’ father, grandmother and uncle opened J & J Piano & Organ (the doors are still open) in Little Rock, and pressure to join the family business mounted until just recently when his father realized his son’s musical ventures were panning out. “He’s starting to get it now,” Ben says. “We’re a limited liability corporation; I’m a small business owner and that’s something he understands. We have stuff to talk about. We can respect each other in a way we couldn’t before.”
Nichols moved to Memphis in 1996, following a girlfriend. They broke up, he stayed in town. By that point he was in Red Forty, a hardcore punk band. Venable was at a show and was so impressed, he walked up to Nichols afterwards and told him his plans to start a band. He wasn’t that serious but thought declaring it to a total stranger might make it so. Plus, he told Nichols he played guitar. “I lied to him,” Venable says. “I had no idea what I was doing.”