Cracker: The Grateful Dead of indie rock

(Above: Cracker perform “Take Me Down to the Infirmary” at Crossroads in Kansas City on July 6, 2007.)

By Joel Francis
The Daily Record

As the 1980s morphed into the 1990s, David Lowery was riding high. The underground band he started in 1983 had attained major label success, and his new band, Cracker, continued to ride that wave. His songs “Low” and “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” were all over the radio and MTV.

This year, Lowery and guitarist Johnny Hickman celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band they founded together out of the ashes of Camper Van Beethoven. In that time, Cracker has come full circle, operating in a landscape that eerily mirrors the early days of Camper Van Beethoven.

“To me the real story isn’t that we had bit MTV and radio hits in the early ‘90s,” Lowery said, “but how the band kept going after that for 15 years. We’ve done it by cultivating a loyal following that exists away from the rest of the industry.”

Cracker’s model of relentless touring, taper- and fan-friendly policies and annual weekend destination festival should be instantly recognizable to any jam band fans.

“We all got it from the same place,” Lowery said. “I remember back in Camper (Van Beethoven) days telling people we had more in common with the (Grateful) Dead than the punk scene. Out of all the jam bands, I don’t know how many played with the Dead, but we did.”

David Lowery (second from left) and Cracker perform a free concert tonight on the KC Live! stage in the Power and Light District. Start time is listed as 8 p.m., but bands usually go on much later.

The Dead invited Cracker to open for them in 1994 at their annual stand at Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Ore. Lowery remembers well his meeting with Jerry Garcia.

“Apparently when I met Jerry he had just come out of a porta-potty. I went to shake his hand, but the only thing I could think was ‘there’s no sink in there,’” Lowery said. “Jerry told me he totally loved our song ‘Euro-Trash Girl’ and was trying to work up an arrangement so the Dead could play it. Sadly, he didn’t live long enough to get it done.”

Camper Van Beethoven emerged in the early ‘80s, in the Southern California underground rock scene, but didn’t fit comfortably. They definitely weren’t punk and too quirky to be mainstream. Over the course of five albums, Lowery and his band mates carved their own niche. Similarly, Cracker came up in an era where they were too poppy for grunge and too much of a country influence to rest beside other rock bands. In 2000, Lowery revived Camper and splits his time between bands.

“The music business has gone all the way back to where we started, where we had to do a lot of stuff independently, within our own organization,” Lowery said. “It wasn’t a challenge for me, because I learned how from the Camper Van Beethoven days. When the labels started coming apart, we always knew what to do.”

In a way, Lowery and his bands have always operated both on their own and on their own turns. The window of high-profile success was so brief they didn’t consider changing how they worked.

“The alt-rock bubble or financial bubble,” Lowery said, “where any band together for more than two weeks and three shows got signed was such a brief period in the 20 years of Cracker and my 27 years of recording that it almost seems like a fluke. There was hardly time to adjust.”

After seeing Internet entrepreneurs being praised for the books they wrote about their five-year-old businesses, Lowery decided he might have something to say about his 27 years in the music business and started working on a book that’s part memoir and business manual.

“People give record labels way too much importance in their minds,” Lowery said. “I learned some things doing research for my book. Like, very few labels last more than 10 or 15 years. Most collapse or are absorbed. The average lifespan of an A&R man (a talent scout who works as a liaison between the label and artist) is less than four years. The people who have been around a long time, that have all the experience, are the artists and the managers.”

Keep reading:

Review: Cracker get on this (again) at Crossroads

Concert Review: Cracker and others at the Wakarusa Music Festival (2006)


Wakarusa Music Festival: A Look Back


By Joel Francis

This weekend marks the first time Wakarusa will not be held at Clinton Lake near Lawrence, Kan. After establishing itself as a second-tier destination festival in 2004, Wakarusa has moved to Mulberry Mountain in Ozark, Ark.

The Daily Record covered the previous four incarnations of Wakarusa. Join us now in a look back at the festival.

2005 – Wakarusa grows in its second year, offering what may be its greatest lineup to date, including Son Volt, Wilco, Neko Case, Calexico, Big Head Todd and the Monsters, String Cheese Incident and a then-unknown Matisyahu. Promoters are rewarded with a turnout of about 15,000 fans each day, doubling the inaugural turnout. Read more Wakarusa 2005 festival coverage.

2006 – The third annual Wakarusa Music Festival gets off to a sour start when music fans are greeted with highway patrol drug checks near Clinton Lake. “Narcarusa” is further sullied when it is revealed police strategically placed infrared cameras around the festival grounds to catch drug activity. Despite these setbacks, the festival once again reaches its 15,000-fan daily capacity and features the Flaming Lips, Les Claypool, P-Funk sideman Bernie Worrell, Gov’t Mule, Robert Randolph and the Family Band and back-to-back sets by Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker. Read more Wakarusa 2006 festival coverage.

2007 – Security is toned-down, but Mother Nature rages with hard winds on Friday and Sunday rain during the fourth Wakarusa. Crowds are down to 12,000 fans each day, which might be a reflection of the festival’s most mediocre lineup. Michael Franti and Spearhead close out the festival and the lineup also includes Be Good Tanyas, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Widespread Panic and Ben Harper. Read more Wakarusa 2007 festival coverage.

2008 – Heavy rains capsize Wakarusa’s final festival to date at Clinton Lake. The downpour ends Friday’s sets prematurely and the swamp left inside most concert tents force fans to abandon shoes at the perimeter or in the muck. Further disappointment hits when Bettye LaVette, Dweezil Zappa and Emmylou Harris cancel performances. An return engagement with the Flaming Lips in addition to sets by Old 97s, Ben Folds, Alejandro Escovedo, members of the Meters, Ozomatli and a Friday afternoon infusion of hip hop from Blackalicious and Arrested Development still leave fans with plenty to love. Read more Wakarusa 2008 festival coverage.

Review: Cracker get on this (again) at Crossroads

Above: “The Man In Me,” honors the little Lebowski in all of us.

By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star

Crossroads KC at Grinders plan last summer to harvest e-mail addresses in exchange for a free ticket to see Cracker went so well they decided to do it again. The pitch may have been déjà vu, but the shows were as different as night and day.

Cracker played a strong, satisfying set last summer, but the boys were on fire for the repeat performance Friday night. Opening number “One Fine Day” sounded like a lost Tom Petty track and stretched past the seven-minute mark as guitarist Johnny Hickman peeled off solo after solo. The performance was too good to end, so band leader David Lowery let go until it reached its natural conclusion.

That set the tone for the rest of the night: There was no letting up. The hilarious country send-up “Mr. Wrong” led into the epic travelogue “Euro-trash Girl,” which was framed with some Willie Nelson-style jazz guitar; the straight country of “Lonesome Johnny Blues” solidified the band’s Grand Ole Opry cred.

As the final notes of the wonderfully self-depreciative “Happy Birthday To Me” were still lingering, Lowery introduced the next number as “approximately the same song” and launched into “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” Although the song – Lowry’s most popular number from his pre-Cracker days in Camper Van Beethoven – was also in last summer’s set list, it was still a pleasant surprise.

If Lowery is the band’s heart then Hickman is its not-so-secret weapon. His guitar solos, high harmony backing vocals and turns as band leader stole the show. Case in point: Hickman’s surprising and outstanding cover of Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me.”

Although the energy flagged a bit with the slow tempo of “Loser” and a reading of “Everybody Gets One For Free” that went on a bit too long, the night ended strong with crowd pleaser “Low.” Hickman again stepped behind the mic for the encore, “Another Song About the Rain.” The song from Cracker’s debut was the perfect capper to the evening: a slow builder that smoldered, then burned and showcased a smoking band.

First Friday and shows at the Sprint Center and River Market made for a competitive evening, which may explain why Crossroads KC was only about a quarter full. The 90-minute set may have been lighter on the hits than last summer’s show, but the faithful had had no room for complaint. Here’s looking to next August.


One Fine Day, Gimme One More Chance, The Riverside, Mr. Wrong, Euro-trash Girl, Lonesome Johnny Blues (Johnny Hickman – lead vocals), Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now), 100 Flower Power Maximum, How Can I Live Without You, The Man In Me (Bob Dylan cover, Johnny Hickman – lead vocals), Happy Birthday To Me, Take the Skinheads Bowling (Camper Van Beethoven cover), Loser, Everybody Gets One For Free, Low, Encore: Another Song About the Rain (Johnny Hickman – lead vocals)

Concert Review: Wakarusa Music Festival (2006)


The Kansas City Star’s Back To Rockville blog

By Joel Francis

Flaming Lips
Bubbles, confetti, lights, super heroes, Santa Claus, space aliens, streamers, balloons and smoke.
We’re only halfway through the Flaming Lips first song and it already feels like the greatest party ever thrown.
The Lips closed down the main stages at Wakarusa on Saturday night by bombarding their audience with happiness for 90 minutes. The props might have seemed like a gimmick if the songs and their performances weren’t equally incredible. Thankfully, they were.
Lips singer Wayne Coyne played the role of merry prankster, shooting confetti, singing with puppets, asking to be pelted with glo-light sticks and rolling over the crowd in a giant bubble.
The heat of the day was gone and a cool breeze had settled in from a storm that was still a few hours off. Maybe Coyne himself put it best: “I don’t want to exaggerate, but this might be the most perfect moment of the whole festival.”

Setlist: Race For the Prize, Bohemian Rhapsody, Free Radicals, Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (part one), Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (part two), Vein of Stars, The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song, The W.A.N.D. , She Don’t Use Jelly, Do You Realize, (encore:) A Spoonful Weighs a Ton

Les Claypool
The undeniable highlight of Les Claypool’s 80 minute set was when heavy metal guitarist Buckethead and funk keyboard legend Bernie Worrell jumped onstage about an hour into the set.
If that pairing sounds eclectic, consider that Claypool’s five-piece band comprised a xylophone, sitar, saxophone, bass and drums. Under the leadership of Claypool’s dexterous bass playing the ensemble was a simultaneous homage to Ravi Shankar, Ornette Coleman and the Violent Femmes’ Brian Ritchie.
The songs averaged 10 minutes in length and there were several head-scratching moments, including a brief sitar/xylophone duet, but most seemed to work.
Other high points included “David Makalster,” “One Better” and the bluegrass inflected “Iowan Gal,” which Claypool performed alone on a bass affixed to a banjo head.

Bernie Worrell and the Woo Warriors
Bernie Worrell is the consummate sideman. A major architect of George Clinton’s P-Funk sound and hired gun in the Talking Heads’ live masterpiece “Stop Making Sense,” he somehow managed to sound like a sideman in his own band.
From behind his elevated rack of six keyboards at extreme stage right, Worrell pounded out everything from Atari noises to “London Bridge Is Falling Down” while his lead guitarist sang the majority of songs and worked the crowd. The six-piece band laid the funk on heavy for just over an hour and even managed to make “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain” sound cool.
P-Funk was only represented sonically, while the Talking Heads “Burning Down the House” closed the set.

Twenty minutes after dismissing Camper Van Beethoven, David Lowery was back onstage with a new outfit and guitarist, keyboard player and fresh catalog.
Cracker is heavier and wants to be played on the radio more than CVB, but it also hasn’t changed its sound much in the past 14 years. Earlier gems like “Eurotrash Girl” and “Low” sounded great alongside later works like “One Fine Day,” “Brides of Neptune” and even material debuted from Cracker’s just-released seventh studio.
The oppressive mid-day heat thinned out some of the crowd, but for every person who left, another one, intrigued by the sounds from afar, took his or her place.

Keep Reading:

Wakarusa Music Festival (2008)

Wakarusa Music Festival (2007)

Wakarusa Music Festival (2005)