It's almost dusk in Kansas City, Mo., and Lucero frontman Ben Nichols is glancing apprehensively across an empty room. The venue's too large, he says, and he's afraid the band will fail to connect with the audience.
"Tonight, we're opening for the Get Up Kids, and the stage looks so huge," says Nichols. "It makes me nervous because the lights will go down and it's supposed to be smooth and professional. I think we're more comfortable, you know, just playing in a bar for some folks."
Nichols' down-home sincerity is tangible, both in his mildly twangy banter and in the emotive growling that often emerges over Lucero's amplified country-rock. Not quite a rock star, not quite a brooding poet, Nichols is the sort of guy who's almost too genuine for his own good.
"On stage, I think we're at our best when you can see the wires," he muses. "Keeping the show authentic is a big deal. We take a lot of requests and try to get the audience involved, or inebriated, or both."
Due in large part to a rabid grassroots fan base, Lucero have become one of indie-rock's hottest bands. They're currently celebrating with a non-stop touring itinerary and a brand new album, Nobody's Darlings, produced by the legendary Jim Dickinson, who helped define the alt-country genre almost 20 years ago while working with the Replacements.
If Lucero's loose and ragged rock 'n roll represents the latest manifestation of the musical genealogy that made Uncle Tupelo one of the most ubiquitous references in indie rock, then perhaps Nichols' home town is partially to blame.
"Coming from Memphis, country music was all around us -- we grew up with those songs," he says. "But we were also listening to punk rock, and so it was only natural that we'd sound like this."
Formed in 1998, the band slogged messily through their first show in the warehouse across the street from the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot.
After the inauspicious beginning, they slowly honed their craft in Memphis bars. By 2000, Lucero had been signed to Madjack Records, a small indie label, and were named "Best New Band in Memphis" at the Premier Player Awards.
Now, nearly five years later, with their hard work finally coming to fruition, Nichols and the rest of the band -- guitarist Brian Venable, bassist John Stubblefield and drummer Roy Berry -- are surprisingly ambivalent about their newfound success.
"It is intimidating some nights," confesses Nichols, "just being extremely busy, traveling to a different city every night, and then trying to communicate these songs to people. Plus, the other bands we tour with sound so seamless and perfect every night that the pressure is really on us to do our best."
In the past year, Lucero has risen to the challenge, earning scores of new fans and impressive record sales thanks to genre-bending tours with bands such as Ted Leo and the Pharmacists and Taking Back Sunday.
Lucero's recipe for rock 'n roll par excellence is simple.
"Whether they're punk rockers or fraternity kids," Nichols says, "the ones who drink the most usually enjoy us the most."
-- Joe Kuzma
Lucero with Honorary Title, The Glass and Spoken Daggers
Darkside, 2106 E. Platte Ave.
Monday, July 11, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets: $8 advance, $10 at the door; all ages; call 635-0657.