Cracker’s Savory Morsels Served At State Theater Gig

So they were standing, like the last rock band on the planet… Yes, Cracker marched through Northern Virginia last night, playing the first of their shows that I’ve seen since, oh, the invention of the Internet.  David Lowery’s grown a beard since Camper Van Beethoven played the same venue (State Theater, Falls Church) in January, and if you want to get a sense of the difference between those fraternal twins, consider where he stands when playing with each one.  With CVB, he’s over on stage right, holding down the singing and rhythm guitar chores while Jimmy Page and Yehudi Menuhin keep the notes flying on the other side.  With Cracker, there he was at center stage, because Johnny Hickman’s gloriously lucid lead licks notwithstanding, Lowery is the center of attention.

Sunrise In The Land of Milk And Honey is a superb album, and restores Cracker’s place in the center of my heart — or maybe more accurately, back on my playlist — in a way not dissimilar to how New Roman Times restored Camper Van Beethoven’s relevance and standing.  Watching Lowery work — joestrummering the guitar and straining to hit the high notes while Johnny Hickman, with the ease of Billy Zoom, lets fly his economical licks and amazingly lyrical lines — shows just how much Cracker means to him, how important it still all is, even in the wake of relative critical indifference, to invest everything he’s got in his genially acerbic lyrics, his faux-unsophisticated singing.

They started with the title song and “Hey Brett (You Know What Time It Is)” from the new album, then went right to where it all began — “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now).”  As a band, they can still kick the milk pail over.  Middle period Cracker seemed to need to thicken the sound, to heavy the bass.  Late period Cracker seems to have rediscovered its punky Americana roots.

After the discursive amusement of Camper Van Beethoven, which mixed LA punk with gypsy music, ska, and ditties from a bar mitzvah in Kiev… to have teamed up with a straigtahead guitarist like Johnny Hickman — a guy who can reel off power chords with the smooth action of a Winchester pump gun sending another shell into the breach — well, it must have been a relief for Lowery, a new lease on life.  All that time he’d been a roots rocker trapped inside the surfer body of a Santa Cruz slacker. And maybe that’s why, 17, 18 years on, they’ve geared up again.  Let’s go for a ride.

As they worked their way through a long, full, career-restrospective set, I was reminded of those mid-90’s albums I haven’t played in years, and how great songs like “Sweet Thistle Pie” really were.  It was those albums — well, maybe it really was Kerosene Hat, and “EuroTrash Girl”  — that brought out a not-young crowd on a Wednesday night, and it reminded us how in their deliberately non-chic way, in their rebelling against a claim of greater relevance, Cracker took the Southern route to understatement, though their greatness really ought not be denied.

Cracker’s show at the State Theater saw a band revived, and their new album shows them still in creatively fine fettle.   In any objective roster of rock’s most charming — and important — frontmen, David Lowery would be on it: he’s John Fogerty with a subversive sense of humor and a manic wit, Jon Langford’s American cousin.  Let’s hope he keeps both Cracker and CVB cranking it up for years to come.

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