Some musicians' works naturally lend themselves to electric guitar-only sets. Bob Mould’s is one, with intricate-yet-speedy guitar and raw, emotional vocals (QRO review). Cracker’s David Lowery and Johnny Hickman are too, with their old school alt-country mix of guitar twang and indie rock. Their quieter pieces, both the emotional ones and the wryly-humorous ones, are largely untouched, but get a big payout from the added ‘live, in-person’ element. Their louder tunes get different angles, either more somber, or more rollicking. And with Cracker’s large back catalog, there were more than enough quality songs to fill the hour-and-a-half set at Maxwell’s (QRO venue review) on April 25th, in Hoboken, NJ.
But that didn’t mean Hickman and Lowery didn’t pick some of the top tracks of theirs that were best suited for the environment, drawing from virtually every Cracker studio release. Two slow, sad, quiet numbers were “Another Song About the Rain” and “Something You Ain’t Got”, from their first and latest records, respectively (last year’s Greenland, and their 1992 self-titled debut). In such a small, intimate setting, the inherent emotions in the songs were carried very directly to the audience. And the sad-drunk “Take Me Down to the Infirmary”, in particular, surpassed its delivery on their somewhat disappointing sophomore release, Kerosene Hat.
However, especially later in the set, the lower volume became an invitation for the crowd to talk amongst themselves, in increasingly louder voices. The crowd of Cracker fans was peculiarly full of frat-boys-turned-stockbrokers from north Jersey. Perhaps they were the most intellectual of their not-so-intellectual group, and maybe these thirties-ish men had made Cracker their ‘alternative’ and/or ‘country’ band in their college and post-college years (when the band had their most ‘mainstream’ appeal). After enough beers they would return to that time, when they felt comfortable talking over sad songs, and shouting the same requests between every piece.
Whatever it was, it, to some degree, took away from what should have been the night’s best two sad songs, “All Her Favorite Fruit” and “Big Dipper”. The encompassing, idiosyncratic, even obsessive love in “Fruit” didn’t quite overwhelm the way it should have, nor did the ‘seeing that girl you lost and wish you had back’ “Dipper”. “Fruit” is actually a Camper Van Beethoven song, Lowery’s famed pre-Cracker alt-experimental-psychedelic band, and “Dipper” certainly owes a lot to Camper (the first words in “Dipper” are the title of the five-disc collection of early Camper, Cigarettes & Carrot Juice: The Santa Cruz Years). The two might have been less suited to the less hippie, more ‘establishment’ audience.
When translated into just two guitars, some of the louder songs became noticeably more poignant, like Greenland’s “Everybody Gets One For Free”, or the band’s most well known song, Cracker’s “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”. But perhaps that was just because the latter was an almost cruel reminder of the band’s slide in fortune since the early nineties (they split with Virgin Records in 2003 over poor sales), and the former was one of a number of songs they’ve since written, in response to that fate (with lines like, “I know our last record / didn’t sell very well”).
If their sadder songs sometimes suffered from over-talk and mood changes, such was not the case for Cracker’s more comic numbers. Quieter ones translated perfectly to the stage, like Hickman’s “Friends”, his dysfunctional friendship duet with Lowery (from his 2005 solo record, Palmhenge), or the night’s following “Dr. Bernice”, the infectiously creepy final track on Cracker. And the louder ones became veritable drinking sing-a-longs, mostly in the latter portion of the evening. Kerosene Hat’s “Eurotrash Girl” was probably the biggest crowd-pleaser, with its tales of misfortune while crisscrossing the Continent. Lowery did add that it had been written in a nearby North Bergen hotel, to cheers for North Bergen (with which Hickman added, “Of course, we’ll say that same story next week in Texas…”). But the house was really brought down with the night’s final one-two punch of the white-trash epic, Cracker’s “Mr. Wrong”, and their cover of Ike Reilly’s Irish white-trash epic, “Duty Free” (from Countrysides, their 2003 album of country covers).
Whenever one gets to see a long-running indie band in an intimate setting like Maxwell’s, one might think such facets of the performance as no drums or bass, or relatively ‘new’ material, would just be some lumps you have to take to get to the good stuff. But with Cracker, this actually added to the set, making it both familiar, and yet also new. The softer pieces were similar but more touching, thanks to the setting, and the harder pieces took some interesting directions, from turning into softer pieces to turning into audience participation. If anything was a hindrance, it was the setting itself, so intimate (and perhaps so ‘Jersey’) that the crowd grew a little too comfortable at times. But regardless, David Lowery and Johnny Hickman proved that not only does Cracker still rock as strong as it ever did, but also that the two of them are more than enough to fill any stage.