February 23, 2015
“You’re going to see Lucero and Ryan Bingham? What kind of music do they play?” I’m quite sure I’m not the only attendee of Thursday’s show that had to field that question from some of their friends who aren’t in the know. How do you describe it? Ask ten Lucero fans to give you a one word answers and you will probably hear ten different answers. You’ll hear everything from punk to old school soul, and of course, alt-country. There has been an alternative to the modern day pop country for years now, if not decades. Most would trace it back to the early 90s and Uncle Tupelo, but there is certainly evidence of it in the 60s with Gram Parsons, The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo or even Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. Call it whatever you want, just don’t try to find it on mainstream country radio. For the sake of this review of Thursday night’s show at Charlotte’s Visulite Theatre, I will call it great songwriting, high energy and two incredible sets of “alt-country.”
When you have a co-headlining tour in town like Lucero and Ryan Bingham, you need to know two things: buy your tickets early, and don’t get there late. The smart (or lucky) Charlotte fans did just that. The Visulite sold out quickly and was packed well before showtime. I’m sure opening act Twin Forks appreciated the early arriving crowd and rewarded them with a nice warmup. For those that haven’t had an opportunity, The Visulite Theatre is a very nice venue for live music. It keeps a small club atmosphere but it is just large enough to attract national artists such as these two co-headliners.
Displaying true hometown pride, Lucero took the stage with Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” playing through the house speakers. To state that the seven-piece band made Visuite’s stage look small would be an understatement. Equipment, instruments and bodies left little room for anything other than playing, which is exactly what they did. They wasted little time firing up the crowd with the title track from 2012’s Women and Work, then heading right into “My Best Girl” from their 2001 debut album. Throughout the set, there was a sense of joy permeating from the stage. These are are guys that truly love what they do. Lead singer Ben Nichols engaged with the crowd between nearly every song and respectfully responded to every request shouted out. Some were honored, some were promised for later and some had been lost: “Oh man, I forgot ‘Angeline’ five years ago. Someday I’ll learn it again.” The horns (saxophone and trumpet) bring a texture to their live set that you just don’t hear often enough from this genre. Other than an occasional short solo, they remained in the background, but added a warmth to every song.
The middle of the set featured three songs without the band other than Rick Steff accompanying on accordion and keyboards. One of the songs they played, the title song from his solo EP The Last Pale Light in the West, was featured in an episode of The Walking Dead. Nichols told the audience he has been a fan since before it became the blockbuster show and was just a comic. “They use [my song] in the show and it made my fucking life.”
When the band returned, the energy picked right back up from the band as well as the crowd. The rowdy songs coming from the stage and one or two sprays of beer in the air briefly turned the Visulite into all out roadhouse. All that was missing was the chicken wire. At one point, in between songs, Nichols looked into the crowd close to the stage and chuckled, “A couple of trouble makers.” The statement didn’t sound accusatory or condemning, rather like Nichols wished he could be down there with them stirring it up. It was Nichols, after all, that described their identity in the tour as the “drunken black sheep of the family.”
Shortly after announcing they were nearing the end of their set, Nichols calmed the crowd by telling them, “Ryan Bingham is gonna be up here real soon and everything is gonna be just fine.” He couldn’t have been more right. Bingham’s more traditional four-man lineup were more than capable of carrying on where Lucero left off. Halfway through set opener “A Dollar a Day” the crowd had been assured that the momentum of the evening hadn’t been lost.
Wearing a white t-shirt, black vest and a cowboy hat pulled low, he led us through a tour of all five studio albums. He was backed by the gifted Dead Horses, who at times come much closer to resembling a rock band than anything in modern country. This leaves Bingham free to switch from acoustic to electric guitar at will and he did so often.
Bingham proved to be just as capable of a storyteller as Lucero’s Ben Nichols. We were told “Fear and Saturday Night,” the title track from his newest album, was written for his grandfather, “a hardass rancher from New Mexico” who taught him to “look the world straight in the eye.” He had the crowd eating out of his hand when he sung “It’s Thursday night and I’m heading into town” instead of “Saturday.” He talked of his youth in Laredo, Texas and an old neighbor who would sit on his porch and play mariachi music. One day he got the courage to talk to him and he taught him the traditional La Malaguena, which he played for us more than adequately, but stated when he finished, “That’s all the mariachi I know.” His most touching stories were when he let his lyrics speak for him. After telling the crowd he had found out he was going to be a daddy soon, he played “Broken Heart Tattoos.” After that? “OK, we did one for the baby, let’s do one for the momma” and Bingham led into “Tell My Mother I Miss Her So.”
Like Lucero, Ryan Bingham also inserted three solo songs in the middle of his set: “Nobody Knows My Troubles” from his latest album, the aforementioned “La Malaguena” and “Ever Wonder Why.” He finished with “Bread and Water” from his debut album Mescalito, one of two songs that mentioned North Carolina with subsequent cheers from the crowd.
A long, late night of music didn’t scare anyone off early. The Visulite Theatre was just as full after as it had been at the start. We can still debate how to describe each artist if you wish. Alt-country? Americana? Who cares! Even Lucero’s website states that even the bandmates have varying opinions on how to classify their sound. Whatever you choose, know this, the crowd left with smiles on their faces.