Most people, they take a vacation to leave work behind. They go sit on a beach and vegetate, or climb a mountain to commune with the elements.
Not Ben Nichols. In between dates on Lucero's typically jam-packed calendar, the band's lead singer and songwriter is heading south from Memphis, on his motorcycle, to play nine solo shows, including one at the Jinx on Monday.
"One of things I miss most when Lucero's on the road is getting to come home and ride my motorcycle," Nichols tells us. "So I figured hell, I'll take the motorcycle for a ride and book a few shows to play at the same time.
"I've got a waterproof dry bag that's potentially big enough to put an acoustic guitar in. So it'll be a backpack, motorcycle and guitar vacation for me."
Since the waning days of the last millennium, Lucero has been the gold standard for hard-rocking alt-country Americana. In the last few years, the band has become less twangy, harder and more anthemic - Nichols likens it to a "classic rock" band, in the best sense of the phrase - but Nichols' gravel and shredded-glass vocals and sharply-etched lyrics remain the center of attention.
Every once in a while, he explains, "It's definitely nice to strip everything down to its bare essentials. I'll be doing a few songs from my solo record, The Last Pale Light in the West, but mainly it'll be acoustic versions of different Lucero songs.
"There's certain songs you can sing in maybe a slightly different voice. You don't have to necessarily scream your brains out just to get the lyrics over. It's nice to just sit back a little bit and hopefully let the song speak for itself."
Pre-Lucero, Nichols was predisposed towards performing in a more intimate setting.
In those days, he and band co-founder Brian Venable played as a duo, "and neither one of us could play guitar very well. And we're still struggling with that! We're real meat and potatoes, basic type of guitar players.
"At the time, we were always saying that me and him, when we played together, made one kind of decent guitar player. It sounded like one OK guy."
Slowly, Lucero added more players, more instruments. After the last Lucero album, 2009's 1372 Overton Park (its first for a major label), the band toured for two months with a horn section. At first, Nichols confesses, he was afraid adhering to strict arrangements, for the sake of the horns, would hold everybody back and keep the adrenaline at a relatively low level.
Turned out, that wasn't the case.
"Being from Memphis and having these really great musicians right there in your town, that have played on a ton of records with all sorts of legendary people - to have them say ‘Yeah, I'll go on the road with you,' it's an honor. It's a pretty cool thing.
"It worked out onstage a lot smoother and easier than I ever would have imagined. They're good enough to where they can take it and run with it. They fit into Lucero perfectly, for as sloppy as we can be sometimes, they were always right on top of it and always fit in perfectly.
"And they actually made that sloppiness sound decent some nights."
Nichols adds that the horns brought out a more "soulful" side of Lucero, and that they'll be back in the studio when the band convenes to record again, any minute now.
"Now that we know how to use them, I think we might be able to use them in a more, I don't know, thought-out and solidified way. I gotta admit, playing live rock ‘n' roll with a horn section is fun as hell."
A native of Little Rock, Ark., Nichols was a history major at Hendrix College, just a sprint up U.S. 40 in the city of Conway.
"I was playing in some really crappy bands - some that I'm not ashamed to listen to, still - and just trying to find the right guys to play with," he says. "That's mainly what I was doing during college.
"But history was the only subject that I ended up being any good at."
He was, he reports, fascinated by European and Russian history, and wrote a paper on early 20th century Europe, in the days before the outbreak of World War I.
And the study of history, and its focus on details, directly influenced his songwriting. All the songs on The Last Pale Light in the West were inspired by Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy's historical novel about murderous outlaws in 1850s America.
"The part about history that I like the most," says Nichols, "is that it's stories. When it comes down to it. And it's stories that actually happened. I was never good at interpreting fiction, and I wasn't as good at the literature classes. But history I could take and kind of dissect it, and maybe say something interesting about it.
"Songwriting was something I'd always just done for fun. And the main part of the lyrics is: Don't write lyrics that are so bad it messes up the music. That's always been my philosophy. Keep it simple. Don't try to get too fancy."
Where: The Jinx, 127 W. Congress St.
When: At 10 p.m. Monday, April 25
Tickets: $10 advance, $12 day of show
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