In the Crowd: Austin Lucas at the Rialto Theatre

by Kyle Cochrun

On Nov. 8, alt-country troubadour Austin Lucas visited Kenmore’s Rialto Theatre for the sort of intimate, up-close performance that’s ideal for the cozy venue.

Wearing blue jeans and a black leather jacket (or was it denim?) and holding his acoustic guitar under the dim stage lights, singer-songwriter Austin Lucas asked a favor of the crowd. He wanted everyone sitting in the tables arranged throughout the room to stand and walk to the edge of the elevated stage, as close as they could get to him standing up there. The crowd of about 25 people did just that, coming together as one unified clump in front of the stage. Lucas thanked the small group as two of his band members, a drummer and a keyboardist, abandoned their posts and stood on either side of him. Lucas strummed his guitar and sang gently, sadly, and his bandmates started to sing too, offering subtle harmonies.

When the song, a melancholy number about growing older, ended, Lucas thanked the crowd again. Then the band broke into a series of explosive party songs, including a rollicking rendition of “Ain’t We Free” that was louder, fuller and more aggressive than the recorded version from Lucas’ Between the Moon and the Midwest release.

Lucas grew up in Bloomington, Indiana, but spent a few years living in Dayton, Ohio, giving him license to poke some lighthearted jokes at the state of Ohio in his between-song stage-talk while tuning his guitar. He commended Akron for giving the world DEVO, Chrissie Hynde, Pat Carney of the Black Keys and Lux Interior — though when a guy in the crowd shouted something about Tin Huey being from Akron, Lucas said, “Who?”

The singer-songwriter has been releasing music under his own name since 2006’s The Common Cold and has been deemed, in a review by Popmatters, “the modern archetype of the musical troubadour” and “a songwriter’s songwriter.” The title of his seventh solo album, Immortal Americans, sums up the content of the tales he spins in his country songs. In the 2018 album’s title track, he sings about the “rattle and hum from the hearth of a midwestern home” and of the youth rejecting the “holy hymns” (i.e. fist pump-worthy rock and roll) of their parents. The song comes off as both a celebration of life in the heartland and a message of discontent, a harbinger of change.

This is Lucas’ appeal as a musician and songwriter: he reveres the Midwest not by glorifying it with pop-country schlock, as too many current country artists do, but paying attention to the minute details, offering introspection and, sometimes, minor revelations.

He’s also kind of punk rock.

At the Rialto show, once Lucas picked up his electric guitar, he never went back. He eventually took off his jacket, revealing tattoo sleeves on both arms, and proved he could shred when the end of a song calls for a little extra playfulness on the axe. The show’s second half was energetic and loud, with Lucas and his band playing fewer slow, hushed numbers and more of what they do best: live-wire country anthems you can dance to, seasoned with melancholy twang and hard-knock lyrics.

Almost everyone in the crowd stood exactly where they did in the first twenty minutes of the show until the night’s final song, “Alone in Memphis,” when, as if they’d been waiting all night for this, everybody sang the final chorus in unison.

// Kyle Cochrun is a writer from Akron, Ohio and is currently enrolled in the NEOMFA program for creative writing.