Rock, country, soul Thursday July 5 at the Opera House

The Sheridan Arts Foundation kicks off its year-long Centennial Celebration with “An Evening with Lucero.” The event caps the Foundation’s week-long Telluride Plein Air and takes place Thursday, July 5 at 9 p.m.

Next summer, July 2013, marks the 100th birthday of the historic Sheridan Opera House. To celebrate the past, present and future of Telluride’s crown jewel, the Sheridan Arts Foundation plans to hold a year-long celebration and capital campaign to pay down the mortgage on the Opera House and celebrate community programming in Telluride.

Memphis, Tennessee rockers Lucero are on tour this summer supporting their eighth album, Women & Work, which debuted at No. 44 on Billboard’s Top 200. It has also broken into the Top 20 in three other charts and fans and critics alike are singing the album’s praises.

Woman & Work is a love letter from Lucero to their hometown.

“Having a band in Memphis puts you in a tradition,” says Lucero frontman Ben Nichols. “We started at punk rock shows, not necessarily playing punk rock, but coming from the outside, from a bohemian place.”
The bohemian tradition is just as strong in Memphis as the city’s series of international hits. The popularity of Sun, Stax, Elvis, and Al Green does not, however, diminish the influence of the blues, Jim Dickinson, and Alex Chilton. The bridge between the shadows and the spotlight has become the heart of Lucero: Unafraid to mix pop with anti-pop, the group is known for charging into new territory.

Women & Work is such an exciting presentation of the band’s eclectic explorations it makes its 14-year meandering path appear to be a straight line to this very record.

“We’re more comfortable in our own skin as a band, more comfortable acknowledging regional influences,” says bassist John Stubblefield. “We wound up making a Memphis country soul record.”

Integrating horns, pedal steel guitar, all manner of keyboards, and even a full-on gospel chorus, Women & Work is a fully realized musical happening. Drawing inspiration from Delaney & Bonnie’s obscure first album, Home, Lucero’s ambivalence about tradition has been replaced with an exuberant embrace: Women & Work is like Arcade Fire baptized in Joe Cocker and Leon Russell’s Mad Dogs, then warmed with Don Nix’s Alabama State Troopers.
“On My Way Downtown,” the album’s lead song, tells the story: a reserved guitar riff sets the mood. A couple of instruments quietly fall in and Ben adds the first contemplative vocals. The song seems headed firmly into the punk-rock-made-pretty territory of their roots – until the organ sustains a chord, the tempo ratchets up, and Lucero becomes a band that doesn’t ask but rather insists that you move your feet. Go ahead hipster—dance!

“Go Easy” is something new for the band: gospel music. A sing-along with a large female chorus, it is more likely to close the bar than open the church, but when returning producer Ted Hutt (Gaslight Anthem) pushed the band toward a sacred sound, they realized it could cinch the album’s country soul feel.

“You work all week, thinking about women and the weekend,” says Nichols. “‘Downtown’ is Friday night, ‘Go Easy’ is Sunday morning. The rest of the record is the party in between.”

Lucero began broadening their sound in 2005 when they brought in Rick Steff, man of the keys (piano, organ, and accordion). In 2007, they expanded again with the addition of pedal steel whiz Todd Beene, and then again more recently with Memphis’s funkiest horn section – Jim Spake and Scott Thompson (Al Green, Cat Power).

Lucero keeps on pushing. For most of the past decade, the band has averaged almost two out of every three nights on the road, steady-building their fan base. Last year, they broadened their audience on a long tour opening for Social Distortion. 

Women & Work finds them on a new label, ATO Records (home to the Drive-By Truckers and My Morning Jacket), and the fit is a good one.

“The best-kept-secret band is now on the best-kept-secret label,” says Venable.

 As different as Lucero may sound from their early days, the new record also takes them full circle.

“When we began,” says drummer Roy Berry, “we were known for how restrained we played. Our sound got bigger over the years, but the larger ensemble is making the core band sparse like we used to be. The songs just have more layers.”

Lucero plays the historic Sheridan Opera House on Thursday, July 5, 9 p.m. Tickets are $25 plus a $3 ticketing fee. Seats will be out and the show is general admission, all-ages.

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