Cracker is essentially a decades-long conversation between singer/songwriter David Lowery and guitar savant Johnny Hickman.
There are those rock ‘n’ roll moments from our youth that are forever twisted up in our musical history. Maybe it was passing on seeing Nirvana that one time or watching Conor Oberst (as Bright Eyes) melt down completely on stage. For me, and it may sound a little silly, the most violent show I ever attended was Cracker back in 1994 at the Tower Theater in Philadelphia. Trust me, I’ve been in my share of mosh pits. Hell, I supported Iggy Pop after he leapt from the stage into the audience, but for some reason, Cracker circa Kerosene Hat attracted the biggest, baddest group of skinheads I have ever seen at a show. Bodies and fists careened off one another. The girl I was with broke her pinky finger. It was a sweat-soaked, chipped-tooth night of rock music. “Low” never sounded more virulent, the irony of “Can I Take My Gun to Heaven” possibly lost on the crowd, the dirge of “Eurotrash Girl” a welcome respite from the shoving. At one point, I felt someone push me and when I turned around, there was a guy with a swastika tattoo rearing back to slug me. I barely escaped, darting into the masses throbbing towards the stage.
Cracker circa 2015 is a very different animal. Country has always been at the heart of its music but new album Berkeley to Bakersfield is a collection of 18 tracks that refract the experiences of living in those very different parts of California into lean, mature rock ‘n’ roll. That fiery edge from Kerosene Hat still simmers under the surface, but Cracker isn’t a band that needs to prove itself now. It’s all about chasing the muse, taking a long, hard look at the current state of things here in the United States and making art that both cherishes and damns the challenges present in the 21st century.
Cracker is essentially a decades-long conversation between singer/songwriter David Lowery and guitar savant Johnny Hickman. They have worked with a variety of bassists and drummers over the years, but the true Cracker soul rests with these two friends. So, it was no surprise that the duo played Portland’s Mississippi Studios in front of a sold-out crowd as an “unplugged” duet, backed only by a pedal steel player. Playing for nearly two hours and concentrating heavily on songs from Berkeley to Bakersfield, Lowery and Hickman did play some rejiggered classics to appease the fans. However, the show couldn’t be more different than that bloody night more than 20 years ago in Philly.
Does it mean you’re old when you’re happy that a show ends at 8:30pm? Nothing bums me out more than a show that starts after 10pm. Not only did Cracker play an early show, they did so without trotting out some sub-par opening band. Instead, we got an evening with just Lowery and Hickman and that’s just fine.
While many of Cracker’s musical peers have either flamed out or resorted to making their money from treading on “greatest hits” tours, Lowery and Hickman continue to play shows dedicated to new material. Sure, we got to hear a slowed-down version of “Low” and “Eurotrash Girl” in waltz time, but the pair introduced “Torches and Pitchforks” and “Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey” with equal pride. And yes, Mississippi Studios is a much smaller room than the Tower, but the packed crowd is a testament to the band’s longevity.
There is something comforting about seeing Lowery and Hickman together on that stage. The link to the ‘90s is there, but it’s also a through line, one knotted with experiences like mine. But in the end, our collective response to Cracker’s music doesn’t really matter. It’s all about Lowery singing of a decapitated movie stars, scumbag rich folks and European transvestites, the stalwart Hickman, always the guitar hero, pushing the melody on his fretboard by the singer’s side. Here’s to 20 more years, boys.