Southern Rock Is Alive and Well

Fri 17 Nov 2007

CHARLESTON—King Street in downtown Charleston, South Carolina is a swanky district. High priced boutiques line both sides of the road. In this neighborhood, a beautiful person could drop a grand faster than a bad stock. Which makes Cumberland’s presence on this commercially oriented strip all the more interesting because Cumberland’s has a homey, old school vibe few clubs outside New Orleans can authentically deliver. The room is shotgun shack-narrow. The bartenders double as short order cooks and the guest list is purely a word-of-mouth affair.

Tonight, three bands are on the bill. Two Southern rocker outfits (The Sundogs and Lucero) and a group of crooners from Fort Collins, Colorado (Drag The River). The Sundogs—from Atlanta via Oxford, Mississippi—take the stage at 10:00 to a packed room busily getting their Friday night on. The four-piece has a clean sound, if country-tinged, Southern rock may be so described. Put another way, their music doesn’t appear to be as whiskey soaked as some, including tonight’s headliners, Lucero.

The Sundogs’ sound is the result of a lifetime of effort. Brothers Will and Lee Haraway have been harmonizing together since an early age when they sang along to their parents’ Beatles, Rolling Stones and Creedence Clearwater Revival records. Clearly the products of a musical family, Lee Haraway even plays his uncle’s pedal steel guitar on stage, making for one of the finer moments of the band’s opening set. Will Haraway describes cowboy hat-wearing, Matt Ulmer, the band’s lead guitarist as “the best player in the band.” His leads do ring true on songs from The Sundogs’ first record, BB Gun Days. Their sophomore effort, Modern Day Miracle is due out in February 2007. While the band regularly plays Atlanta gigs and tours around the Southeast, Haraway is eager to spread the word. He says, “We’ll go as far as the (new) record takes us.” If their debut LP is any indication, there’s a trip to states west and north in this band’s future.

At 11:07, two members of Drag The River take the stage. Jon Snodgrass and Chad Price launch into their set of acoustic singer-songwriter numbers. The two are former punk rockers and one can’t help but wish for some of that raw energy tonight, for the mood in the room is not exactly receptive to reflective ditties. Through no fault of their own, the highlight of Drag The River’s set is the one song where they’re joined by John Stubblefield and Roy Barry, Lucero’s bass palyer and drummer, respectively. The crowd perks up considerably during this number. It’s a Lucero crowd and this audio appetizer leaves the room hungry for more.

Lucero is a band live music fans have a ton of passion for. Brian from Charleston has seen them live 15 to 20 times. “I feel at home wherever I am, whenever I see them. They’re wholesome people,” he says. Knowing he’s in on something good early on in the process, Brian says, “In a year or two from now, everyone will know them. They’re as real as you can get in a rock band in America.”

For Lucero’s part, lead singer Ben Nichols reflects on Cumberland’s place in the band’s progression. “This is one of the first places we travelled from Memphis to play,” he says. Lucero formed in Memphis in 1998. The band’s first recording, The Attic Tapes was made on an 8-track in lead guitarist Brian Venable’s dad’s house. On their two most recent records Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers and Nobody’s Darling, Lucero worked with producers David Lowery of Cracker fame and legendary Memphis sound sage Jim Dickinson. Nichols says both producers were great to work with. Neither tried to contain or shape the band’s music, which would be like trying to bottle lightning. Even their record deal with East/West (a subsidiary of Warner Brothers) is an ideal scenario, giving Lucero total ownership of their recordings and publishing rights. Maybe that’s what a band that’s been compared to Uncle Tupelo, Bruce Springsteen and the Replacements (although a comparison to Drive-By Truckers is nearer to the truth) has earned. For sure, Lucero works hard for what they have, touring 200 plus nights a year in their Dodge Sprinter.

The grit of the road comes across in Lucero’s music, as Nichols works his way through songs about women, drinking and life on tour.

“Left a darling down in Georgia
Lost a girl to Tennessee
Now I’m going’ out to California
Where somebody cares for me”

The material works. Those in the crowd who were earlier sending and receiving text messages are now patched directly into one of Southern rock’s freshest voices and best hopes for the continued relevance of the genre. Nichols is a raconteur with a mic, a guitar and three friends complimenting his every move. Lucero’s live show takes the diehards up front on a ride—free from their cubicles for the weekend, these music lovers experiece, albeit vicariously, the twists and turns of a man who feels, who cares and who likes to share. Music at its best is transformative and inspiring. For those here to be moved, Lucero is the vehicle. Band and fans together appear to be pleased with the process and the destination.