Live from Atlanta, recorded over three nights last November at the titular city’s Terminal West, is Lucero’s first live album, and it comes as close as possible to capturing the live Lucero experience without getting beer spilled in your hair or getting kicked in the forehead by a drunken stage diver. At 32 songs and 125 minutes long, the album clocks in right about where the band’s nightly marathons do, in the process eschewing the boring convention of cherry-picking and bastardizing a live set just to fit it all on a single disc. In that spirit, Live from Atlanta goes beyond the songs, capturing every detail possible of Lucero’s shows, including frontman Ben Nichols’s drinking-buddy banter, which grows increasingly slurred by the end of the set, and an announcement by the band’s convivial bear of a bass player, John C. Stubblefield, who politely asks the crowd to cool it with “the baptismal adulations of the throwing beers and what not.” As anyone who’s ever been to a Lucero show can attest, some form of the latter is a nightly occurrence.
There are a few bands, like the Replacements and Guided by Voices, who are better known for getting wasted than they are for actually sounding good on stage. Live from Atlanta proves that, even if they sell a beer koozie that reads “The Drunker You Get, The Better We Sound,” Lucero is definitely not one of those bands. They may have been a much more ragged outfit a decade ago (Nichols and lead six-stringer Brian Venable didn’t even learn how to play the guitar until they started the band in the late ’90s), but their touring unit now includes one of the slickest piano players in Memphis, Rick Steff, as well as a three-piece horn section. The band still retains plenty of off-the-cuff edge, thanks in large part to Nichols’s rasping burr of a voice—the aural equivalent of a delicious plate of Memphis-smoked BBQ. But present-day Lucero has reached a level of sheer musicianship that allows them to hit anthemic climaxes before scaling it all the way back for some intimate “cowboy emo,” as Venable himself has termed it. On Live from Atlanta, this often happens within the same song (“Slow Dancing,” “Nights Like These”).
The expanded lineup has also allowed Lucero to transcend the limiting alt-country tag the band was often saddled with in their earlier days. Indeed, since adding piano in 2006 and horns in 2009, they’ve touched on just about seemingly every facet of Memphis’s rich musical history. Live from Atlanta’s career-spanning tracklist covers just about every one of those digressions: honky tonk (“Like Lightning,” “Rick’s Boogie”), Springsteenian melodrama (“I Can Get Us Out of Here”), pure Stax-Volt soul (“Goodbye Again,” “It May Be Too Late”), garage-y rave-ups (“Tonight Ain’t Gonna Be Good”), weep-in-your-beer twang (“I’ll Just Fall,” “Texas & Tennessee”), and tender, heart-on-sleeve lullabies (“Mom,” “Fistful of Tears”). The album also showcases some neat tricks that Lucero has never committed to tape before, like using “All Sewn Up,” a ramshackle boogie from the band’s debut, as a showcase for everyone to take a solo, or transforming “Tears Don’t Matter Much,” from 2003’s That Much Further West, into the band’s ultimate anthem, complete with a cathartic shout-along chorus and a disarming brass breakdown. Even without the band’s classic cover of Jawbreaker’s “Kiss the Bottle” (and its absence is pretty inexplicable), it’s nearly impossible to quibble with the song selection.
If there’s an issue with Live from Atlanta, as with any Lucero live set, it’s that, as a result of the fact that the band doesn’t make a setlist before going on stage, the see-sawing back and forth between the slow songs and the fast ones can be rather sudden. This does help mask the fact that a lot of their songs are awfully samey, but it also means that the album doesn’t really manage to build up any sustained momentum until around the middle of the second disc, when they break out “Tears Don’t Matter Much” and follow it up with a succession of rarely played gems, “A Dangerous Thing” and “The Last Song,” from the band’s first two albums. Still, with so many great songs in one place, a few of them in their definitive forms, it may be that Live from Atlanta is now the most accessible, comprehensive introduction to Lucero available. Just make sure to pair it with a couple of whiskey shots.