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Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Cracker Performs an Intimate, Stripped-Down Set at Euclid Records: Review

Posted By on Tue, Dec 9, 2014 at 5:17 AM

Cracker, performing at Euclid Records. - MIKE VANGEL
  • Mike Vangel
  • Cracker, performing at Euclid Records.

Cracker was always one of those bands that my dad sort of used to like. Meaning that in my iTunes under "Cracker," there are just a few songs off the band's debut album and its follow-up, Kerosene Hat, whose name I only know for sure because I Googled it. There's nothing listed in the "Album" field, which means those tracks probably came from our brief stint with Kazaa. (Sorry, David Lowery & Co.)

Because he'd introduced me, I invited my dad to come along to Cracker's performance Saturday afternoon at Euclid Records.

"You excited?" I asked as we drove to Webster Groves.

"Eh...not really. I guess," he replied. To be fair, it can take a lot to get a rise out of him.

Arriving a little after three, we ducked inside out of the cold. Gold and red tinsel hung above the windows, and the record store was warm and inviting compared to the gray December afternoon.

  • Mike Vangel

One or two guys flipped through the rows of LPs, and since the band hadn't yet arrived, we joined them. Over the next half hour, more and more middle-aged couples trickled in, visibly anxious for the band to get there.

Cracker swung through St. Louis this past weekend for an engagement at the Duck Room on Saturday night, one stop on a tour to support the upcoming release of its tenth studio album, Berkeley to Bakersfield. The album is a double-disc affair which, as Cracker frontman David Lowery told Rolling Stone, "sums up our history, our career."

The first disc, Berkeley, draws mostly on the band's alternative-rock roots, which inspired bigger hits like "Low." The second disc delves into the group's country origins, and was recorded with a host of guest musicians from Athens, Georgia.

In the sort of calculated twist usually reserved for low-budget films and my life, Athens is also home to R.E.M., whose album Fables of the Reconstruction started playing over Euclid's stereo shortly after we walked in. "That's where I saw them!" my dad announced later. Finally, it clicked -- he'd seen Lowery's first group, Camper Van Beethoven, open for R.E.M. here back in the mid-80s, likely touring for that same album. Talk about coincidence.

I left him to reminisce about Camper's heyday with one of the store's employees while I continued to browse. In an era when record store appearances are increasingly rare, I'll speculate that Cracker's appearance had at least something to do with Lowery's crusade against music-streaming companies such as Pandora, which has garnered him some national attention over the last few years.

The store was filling by that point, but for the most part no one was buying records, just waiting for the show. It occurred to me that I should get an album and have the band sign it, ideally a copy of Kerosene Hat or Cracker, since that was really the music I knew. I checked the new rock LPs first, then the new CDs, followed by the used LPs and the wall of used CDs. Not a single disc.

It wasn't until the band's white minivan taxi pulled up at 3:37 p.m. that a box of new CDs appeared. The room bristled with excitement. Lowery strutted in wearing a black fur coat and Bono-esque blue shades, followed by co-founding guitarist Johnny Hickman, whose cowboy boots clacked on the store's wooden floors.

Continue to page two for more.

They set up quickly on a stage at the back of the shop, and fans crowded in between the rows of albums. One guy moved up into the middle of the crowd with his black duffel, from which he extracted a field recording set-up, planting a tower with dual microphones in the middle of an aisle like this was the fucking Grateful Dead.

"Hey, we're Cracker," Lowery said into his mic a minute later, and the band started up with "Almond Grove," a track from the new album.

It was a stripped-down version of the group -- just Lowery on acoustic guitar, Hickman on lead and a guy they called "Pistol" playing pedal steel. The arrangement was well-suited to the country setlist; the room's warm acoustics complemented Lowery's guitar, and the cry of the pedal steel sounded high and lonesome. Fifty or so people bobbed along to the music, and it had the atmosphere of a big coffee shop show.

The band played three more tunes, and Lowery thanked everyone for coming out. There was a slight disappointment in the air. He turned to the other guys, and we could hear him say, "Let's play two more."

"All right, here's another hit," he said into the mic, softly fingerpicking a familiar set of chords. "I don't know what the world may need, but I'm sure as hell that it starts with me," he sang.

The room took on new energy. Lowery and Hickman built it, strumming harder, and Lowery ripped into the mic with those classic cynical lines: "What the world needs now is a new Frank Sinatra, so I can get you in bed!"

Finally, that sound was there. The one that made the group famous, and that always draws me back. Cracker has performed it for over twenty years, but "Teen Angst" still kicks ass. Lowery's voice was earnest and intense, with a gravelly razor-blade rasp that gave me goosebumps. The crowd cheered wildly as the band finished, everyone tingling with excitement.

The group signed autographs for about twenty minutes, and then their taxi returned to whisk them away. We left too, and as we got in the car, I asked my dad what he'd thought.

"Oh, they were pretty good," he said, looking out the window.


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