The rock band Cracker, which recently played at The Hamilton Live, has a strong connection to our area. In 1990, seminal alt-rock band Camper Van Beethoven disbanded. Frontman David Lowery (a native of San Antonio, Texas) relocated to Richmond, California, where he started the new project. At The Hamilton Live, they paid it back, bringing along Baltimore’s Joey Harkum to open the show.
While Camper Van Beethoven was an influential band, Cracker has achieved considerably more mainstream success. Their early single, “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)” reached No. 1 on the modern rock charts. As the band evolved, they leaned into a more heavily country-rock sound, reaching the apex of that development with their double album From Berkeley to Bakersfield.
Like Camper, Cracker’s songs are fueled by Lowery’s wry, funny, impertinent lyrics. There’s a certain amount of weirdness to everything he does; he’s a nerd, and I mean that in a positive way: He has a college degree in math, and he went to receive a doctorate in education from Georgia State. As he’s moved into being an elder statesman of the rock community, he’s spoken out on issues like the low payments artists receive from streaming platforms.
(I realize how bad streaming is for artists, but it’s also the only way, given the number of these show reviews I write, that I’m able to review and familiarize myself with artists’ catalogs. And even artists — I won’t name names — who don’t release albums on streaming still use the platforms themselves. It’s end-state capitalism logic, where a service that people enjoy and use extensively is, ultimately, likely to be self-destroying.)
On August 18 at The Hamilton Live, Cracker started their set with one of those country-rock tunes I mentioned, “King of Bakersfield.” Bakersfield, of course, is the center of country music in California, the place that gave us the “Bakersfield sound” (a variation on honky-tonk), the place where Buck Owens and Merle Haggard based their careers. After the song, David told a funny story about running into his pedal steel player, who goes by the nickname “Pistol,” at the airport. “If you see your pedal steel player at the Starbucks at National Airport,” he said, “don’t start shouting ‘Pistol! Pistol! Pistol!'”
Watch Cracker perform “King of Bakersfield” live on WFPK via YouTube:
The audience was really into this show, and they clapped along to the beat on the next tune, “Been Around the World.” The set continued with “Seven Days” and the previously mentioned “Teen Angst,” followed by “World Keeps Burning” and the title cut of Cracker’s album Kerosene Hat. Johnny Hickman sang the next one, appropriately, “Lonesome Johnny Blues.” The band’s irreverence was on full display in “Euro-Trash Girl” and several other songs: “Loser,” “Sweet Thistle Pie,” and “Movie Star.” Other songs in the set included “Get On Down The Road,” “Get Off This,” “Low,” the science-fiction influenced “Time Machine,” and “Take Me Down To The Infirmary.”
As the set wound down, Cracker returned to country-rock with “California Country Boy,” then played “Hey Bret (You Know What Time It Is).” They closed the main set with the emotional and anthemic “Another Song About The Rain.” After the band left stage, David returned alone to start the encore. He shared that a fan had come all the way from Europe and requested his song “Big Dipper,” and David obliged by playing it. It is to my eternal shame that I didn’t recognize the last song of the night — played by the whole band — Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me.”
Cracker’s songs manage to be anthemic rock songs while embracing the weirdness of Lowery’s personality. It’s rock for thinkers, people who enjoy clever lyrics and a bit of wit, but who also enjoy rocking out and rocking hard. They’re always distinctive, and they’re always entertaining. A lot of music and musicians can blend together — a lot of people do the same things, follow and chase trends, but that’s absolutely not true of Cracker. With Cracker, you’re always getting some distinctive and a little unusual, but a lot of fun and great entertainment.