When they announced Ben Nichols‘ solo appearance at a NJ venue, I immediately bought a ticket and figured I’d find out how to get there afterwards. Ben rarely plays solo gigs around NYC – at least since I’ve been following Lucero in 2009 – the only time I’ve seen him solo was in 2015 – so I needed to go. Public transportation would easily get me there but getting home would be difficult because I’d have to leave possibly before the show ended. I either had to get a hotel room or convince Peter to join me so he could rent a car (I haven’t driven in over 10 years and living in NYC that’s not a problem). Peter agreed and I was happy.
From the start, Saturday was not going well for me. Easy errands were annoying for one reason or another and then the Zipcar Peter had rented was late in arriving. The drive was uneventful except that because of the rain it was so foggy that you couldn’t see anything outside of car when going over the bridges. Then we couldn’t find the venue. Google was telling us it was 26 miles away from where we were in Garwood and, not believing that, we finally found the place on our own. Crossroads is a live music venue with a bar and a restaurant. Their sign faces the parking lot entrance instead of the street so you will drive past the place several times (as we did) before you realize where it is. I had called the day before to find out if we could eat there and when the doors would be open. They wouldn’t be open until 6:45pm and the tables had been taken out for the show (although I was told we could eat at the bar). It was already 6pm when we arrived, which was when I wanted to be ready to go in if there was a line. We found a nearby place to eat and came back at 6:30 and the place was already open and there were about 20-30 people inside. There were still a few spots near the stage – two right in front of the mic and two on the far left. We took the places on the left side.
Crossroads is a nice sized place – I want to say maybe slightly smaller or about Mercury Lounge size. Mom marks your hand with an actual marker when you walk in. (When someone yelled out a request for “Mom,” Ben showed us where the venue’s mother had marked his hand just like the rest of us.) There’s a 360-degree bar and then you step down onto the floor with a small stage in the far corner.
Show start was supposed to be 8pm and I knew it wouldn’t start at that time but was surprised that it didn’t start until about 8:45pm. Jared Hart (formerly of The Scandals and now forming a new band) was the opener. He’s another punk rocker, who has gone acoustic and he can sing loudly – like really loudly – he was standing very far away from the mic and you could hear him very well. He’s got that gruff voice that I like so much (Ben, Chuck Ragan). Peter wasn’t as impressed with him as I had been when I first saw him open twice for Cory Branan last year (I had immediately gone out and downloaded a bunch of his stuff). Jared opened with “Totem” and then played a new song (“like lightening from a storm”) from the new band. Next was “Basements.” He said he works at a venue where they’re performing Hamlet and the sound guy will play unusual songs while the crowd is entering. Once he played The Streets – Jared asked if anyone knew the band and I don’t think there was any response and then he said the following song reminded him of Ian Young (again no response). The song was The Wallflowers’ “One Headlight.” “Lucky 7’s” was next and then a topical song because it was written after the Phillies won the World Series (he, of course, was referencing the Super Bowl) called “Sirens” (a Scandals’ song that has a line about Philadelphia burning). At some point I noticed Ben standing in the doorway watching Jared. Casey joined him for “The Leo,” which I thought could easily be a Springsteen song. Jared ended with “Heads or Tails” with many of us in the audience singing along.
My only complaint is that he still wears his pants hanging halfway off his ass but it was a good, if brief, set.
Ben came up to set up his pedals but let the audience know that the club had asked him to stretch so he wouldn’t be back for about 15 minutes. Then he promised us that he’d get a drink at the bar and return to the stage. While we were waiting, they put a half a bottle of good bourbon, a rocks glass, and a pitcher of ice on the stage. Peter had gone to the bar to get me a drink and I had asked him to bring back a shot of Jameson for Ben. I was surprised to see the set-up on stage.
Ben set up a chair next to him and put down some sheets of paper. It looked like lyric sheets and a set list. It turned out that he had practiced a set of songs (including some new songs) that he wanted to play. He had the lyrics to some of the new songs printed out. Since Lucero always plays without a set list, I was surprised to see this. But I soon realized that these are different times. The band isn’t out on the road for 300 nights a year anymore. Some of them have families and they want to watch their children grow up. It was Ben’s plan to play songs that the band rarely performs and he was going to sip the good bourbon to keep from getting drunk too fast. That part of the plan went to the wayside first from one audience member giving him a shot before Ben poured the good bourbon. Later, I gave him the shot that Peter had bought for him. He did drink at least two glasses of the bourbon with lots of ice from the rocks glass (refilling a ¾ full glass at least once) but by mid-set, Ben was drinking straight from the bottle. (There was a funny moment when he was trying to fill the glass with ice and pour the bourbon and he didn’t have enough hands to do the job and finally an audience member held the glass for him.) Despite the bourbon and whisky, he didn’t seem that drunk to me. I’ve certainly seen him drunker. And he wasn’t punching himself in the head to remember lyrics. He did go up on the lyrics a few times – the audience filled in the space when he stopped during the familiar songs. Peter said something that reminded me of something that Pete Seeger would say – Woody Guthrie would accuse Pete of rehearsing on stage. In some ways, it did feel like an open rehearsal.
But what a fun rehearsal it was. Ben said it was his first gig of the year and the most fun he’s had in a long time. I agree about the fun. It was one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time. We heard a lot of old favorites and some new songs – some that aren’t going to be on the new album but may appear as B-sides on Record Store Day.
Before Ben even started there was yelling and requests from a group near the front middle. “So this is where the problem area is going to be,” Ben said as he made a circle with his finger around the group. “I can see it right here.” He opened with “Chambers” so I knew we were in for some treats. Then he played “Stormy Eyed Valentine,” which was written for one of two Amazon Valentine’s Day albums (his was for the Love Me Not album) – a song he had never performed live before. Next was one of the new songs, “To My Dearest Wife,” which is just such a beautiful love song.
He said one song was a Lucero song and then said that really they were all Lucero songs.
Ben hadn’t planned on it but then he played a request – “Went Looking for Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles.” For “When I Was Young” he went up on the lyrics and was trying to read the printed out lyric sheet but was having difficulty. He held the lyric sheet up, trying to read it, and said, “I’m not young!” He hadn’t practiced “The Kid” for the show but played it anyway. A new song was called “Everything has Changed” but might be called “Darker Days,” which is a cooler name but since they’re Lucero he joked that they probably won’t use it.
As expected, “Nights Like These” was a huge singalong as were a lot of the Lucero songs and even songs from Last Pale Light in the West. After “Loving” a bouncer whispered something into Ben’s ear and then Ben announced that Steve in a Montana t-shirt – your wife has passed out. Then we immediately found out that Steve’s wife was fine. Someone yelled out, “Go Steve’s wife!” and Ben repeated that and drank from the bottle. There were several other mentions about Steve’s wife after that.
A new song that’s not on going to be on the album is “One Last Fuck You” but it may come out as a B-side on Record Store Day. The A-side may even be another song that won’t be on the album – a fun song about his daughter called “My Name is Izzy.” Or the song may be released for free. He sings about all the naughty things that a 1-1/2-year-old girl does like eating grass and chewing on sticks. He said that when she went to her grandmother’s and was watching cable – after having only experienced Netflix – when the commercials came on, his daughter was like, “What the fuck is going on?”
During “I Woke Up in New Orleans” the audience was very quiet except for three young people right in front of Ben who had a conversation. Ben said something to them that I didn’t hear and then he thanked the audience for being quiet except for you three while he pointed to them. Later they requested “The Outsiders” a song from Ben’s mid-90s punk band Red Forty. I was looking at how young they were and was glad when Ben asked if they were even born in 1994 (they weren’t). He told us that you could tell how old the song was because it mentions things that don’t happen anymore (taping songs, writing letters). He explained how you would write a letter and then have to wait three weeks for a response.
It was the free-for-all portion of the program and people kept calling out songs and I was wanted to yell out a request too and I had my hands at the sides of my mouth to shout out but I didn’t want to compete with the others and I started to say something and then stopped. Ben saw me almost yell something and pointed to me and asked what song I wanted. And then he played my request, “Hey Darlin’, Do You Gamble?”
This was a night for Ben to play songs he didn’t know and see if he could play them. After “A Dangerous Thing” he laughed and said he used to be a jerk. One of the memes for the night was KIP (keeping it positive), so if Ben said anything negative, he would remind himself to KIP. And he said tomorrow when he would be on the plane at 10am throwing up, he’ll tell the other passengers “KIP.” After “Davy Brown” he said we were off the rails now. “I’ll Just Fall” was a true story about tonight he joked and said he loved the bar and would definitely be coming back. I think this was about the time that I noticed that Oliver Peck was in the audience.
Later he started a new song, couldn’t remember it, started “Slow Dancing,” decided it was a cop-out and went back to the new song, and then ended the evening with “Slow Dancing.”
After the show I thanked Jared and then found Ben and he hugged me and thanked me for the shot and then I thanked him for the show and then I hugged him, which took me by surprise but I’m glad I did it. He feels like an old friend now. I know he’s not – I’m not crazy – but he makes you feel so comfortable around him and his singing is so personal that you feel like he’s telling you the most intimate things about himself.
Stormy Eyed Valentine
To My Dearest Wife (new song)
Went Looking for Warren Zevon’s Los Angeles
When I Was Young
The Last Pale Light in the West
Everything Has Changed (or maybe will be called Darker Days – new song)
Nights Like These
Texas & Tennessee
One Last Fuck You (new song)
Hello My Name is Izzy (new song)
I Woke Up in New Orleans
Hold Me Close
The Outsiders (Red Forty song)
Hey Darlin’, Do You Gamble?
Joining the Army
“Cover me” (new song?)
A Dangerous Thing
I’ll Just Fall
When You Decided to Leave
I Can’t Stand to Leave You
“Bottom of the sea” (new song)
By Carene Lydia Lopez