It's commonplace to stand in long and winding outdoor lines to get into the sprawling Gilley's complex for concerts. I'm not sure why that's the case, but at this point I accept it and use the time in line to assess whatever crowd has gathered for the event taking place.
On Friday night, with visions of Lucero and Ryan Bingham in their heads, boots-wearing urban cowfolk turned out in droves to the complex's South Side Ballroom space, hooting and hollering in the line as though they'd pre-partied plenty. They had 'em and they smoked 'em. Staff warned that they were confiscating pocket knives. I could tell this was a rowdy group before I darkened the doorway.
On top of Friday night's weather being the best we'd had all week, both advertised acts appealed to the beer-and-whiskey enthusiasts. Essentially, it was a perfect party storm; the place was packed.
Lucky for the few thousand restless concertgoers constantly hoisting tallboys into the air, the program offered a wide array of muscular roots music. After an opening set by Twin Forks (Chris Carrabba's post-Dashboard-Confessional project), the five members of Lucero plus a horn combo came on and roared through 16 tunes of Memphis country-rock-soul stew.
After growling through the crowd-pleasing "Women & Work" and "On My Way Downtown," Lucero's skinny, stubbled frontman Ben Nichols spoke: "Friday night in Dallas? Ain't no way I'm gonna be well behaved!"
The crowd up front took Nichols' proclamation as a cue to hand him shots of hard liquor. He knocked one back like it was nothing after singing the twangy "Texas & Tennessee." The next one didn't go down as easily. He drank it and then promptly choked. "I think that last shot may have been a mistake," he said.
Still, the stiff drinks might've been appropriate for the serious subject matter of both "Mom" and "The War" - both intimate and personal songs about family members' hardscrabble lives. Nichols seemed almost apologetic about bringing down the mood temporarily: "I don't mean to bum you out on a Friday night, but that is kind of my deal."
By the end of Lucero's set, though, they were back in high spirits, horns a-blaring and Nichols' voice closely resembling that of Oscar the Grouch after a bender. The crowd, while chatty, showed great enthusiasm for these guys.
Yet the woo-hoos and spontaneous toasts intensified when the Texas-raised Bingham and his five-piece band took the stage. Laid-back and loose in a stylish feathered hat, the 33-year-old headliner kept the night's overall mood celebratory: "We gonna get rowdy or what?"
His voice even more gravelly than Nichols', Bingham still managed to sing with greater soul and control, proving why he deserved the night's closing slot. And he did stuff from all his albums, not only the just-released Fear and Saturday Night.
The Junky Star track "Depression" came second in the set and briefly swept up the entire crowd in a raucous singalong moment. Later, at Bingham's behest, folks stomped and kicked to the beat of the fiddle-licious Roadhouse Sun song "Tell My Mother I Miss Her So."
It was affecting to hear Bingham - who has lived mighty hard and dealt with the tragic deaths of both his parents - speak about the meaning of his material.
Before the new tune "Broken Heart Tattoos," he said, "This isn't about the tattoos on your skin; it's about the kind of tattoos that get branded on your [expletive] soul by life." He then gave the song his best Bob Dylan treatment, complete with acoustic guitar and harmonica.
In the most poignant moment of the night, Bingham sent his band away and did a few acoustic songs, including his Oscar-winning Crazy Heart theme, "The Weary Kind."
The people had clearly come to party, but for a few minutes there they shut up to take in the imperfect beauty of Bingham's voice. That voice will likely leave more powerful hangovers than the tallboys.