Thursday, December 29, 2011

Ben Nichols

Last night, I saw Lucero in concert … again. Each and every time that I have seen this band they have floored me. It was a few years back when the eldest Brother McC called me to say that Lucero were playing in Brooklyn. At the time, I had never heard of them – but I was told that I need to be there. The Mrs & I were residing in Brooklyn at that time – so off we went.

One word: Amazing.

So after the show, I walked over to the merch table and said: One of everything, please.

As a band, Lucero is one of the great live acts out there. There’s no flash, no light show, no schtick … just a great set of musicians who give passionate performances of the songs that they obviously love to play. And those songs are amazing.

Throughout most of the 70’s – every serious songwriter got saddled with one version or another of the tag – “The New Dylan” – and throughout the 80’s & 90’s – many great songwriters came & went. Some reach amazing heights – and some never got passed the local club circuit.

But an amazing thread ran through the best of these. Common Speak. Lyrics that were universal – or at least, universal to the working class. In Ireland, Shane McGowan cornered the market of songs that painted pictures of the life & times of the working class. In England, Joe Strummer struggled with his quest to speak out for the common man. In the US, the reigning champ was Springsteen. But then there was a lull in the action. Sure, there were pretty great bands & songwriters here & there. But there was nothing that rocked my world like the first time I saw The Pogues … The Clash … or The E Street Band. Till that night I saw Lucero in Brooklyn.

Last night, something caught me off guard. The show was an all-ages show. So the riotous, drunken behavior on the dance floor was absent. And, as noted by lead singer – Ben Nichols – the crowd was paying rapt attention to the ballads. Sure, they were raising hell on the rockers – but singing along with every word on the slow songs. So Nichols ran with it – playing more of his introspective songs than we usually get at a Lucero show.

And it was the more I appreciated the lyrics – the ballads – songs from the new, soon-to-be released CD, and some old favorites – that I came to really appreciate the level of talent this guy has cleared with his craft.

The people in Ben Nichols’ songs are the same people in the audience of a Lucero show. Sure, in “The War” – Nichols is singing about his grandfather. But as he poured his heart out in last night’s version of that song, all I could think of is how many kids in the audience had already done their time serving this country – and how many more will.

Ben Nichols isn’t “The Next Dylan” – he’s Ben Nichols. And, for my money, he’s currently in the cream of the crop of American spokesmen today. His songs tell the story of the 99%. His songs tell the stories of the forgotten, the overlooked and the lost. And, yes, there are folks in these tales that have just made bad choices in their lives. But in the end, these are songs about folks who no longer recognize what the American Dream once was. For them, a good day is having enough money in your pocket to have a whiskey at the end of the day.

“Smoke” – by Ben Nichols

The bike was on the street
Outside a midtown bar
He went looking for a drink
Wasn’t looking very hard
She was sitting on his seat
When he came out the door
She said, “Run away with me”
He’d heard that line before
He said, “Better men than me
Have all be left behind”
She said, “We’re doing pretty good
If we can just get out alive”

She wrapped her arms around his waist
Nowhere to run to anyways
The bolted out into the streets
Unknown and beautiful