ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON APRIL 11, 1996
By Steve Newton
As well as being the most visually appealing place to see a rock concert in Vancouver, the Commodore Ballroom is noted for its consistently strong sound, but I’ve never heard a better-sounding gig than that performed by Virginia-based alternative-poppers Cracker last Friday (April 5). Every instrument and voice was clearly defined, and Johnny Hott’s drum sound was riveting. It was as if the band’s soundman knew something about acoustics that nobody else did and was exploiting that secret knowledge for all it was worth.
The greatest sound in the world doesn’t add up to much if the band behind it isn’t up to snuff, of course, but fortunately Cracker was right on the money for the brunt of its 90-minute set. Led by former Camper Van Beethoven nutcase David Lowery, the quintet—rounded out by lead guitarist Johnny Hickman, former Silos bassist Bob Rupe, and keyboardist Kenny Margolis (who handled a mean accordion)—focused mainly on material from The Golden Age, its new follow-up to the million-selling Kerosene Hat disc of ’93.
Lowery’s quirky, unpredictable words were effectively set against Hickman’s variously snaky and shimmering, always tasteful and concise lead work. The chameleonlike band leaped easily from the realms of Asleep at the Wheel–type country-swing to the rampaging punk exemplified by its current single, “I Hate My Generation”.
Cracker’s casual mastery of the roots-rock idiom makes it a fitting replacement for the Replacements; certainly singer-lyricist Lowery cuts the same kind of artsy but street-smart figure as Paul Westerberg. And the fact that Cracker can rock out in the ’90s with the same intensity as the Replacements in the ’80s won’t hurt its live reputation, either.
As impressive as the wide-ranging sounds rolling off the stage were, there were a couple of times when I thought some of Cracker’s tunes carried on a verse or two too long—as on “Eurotrash Girl” and another song that went overboard with circus music—but since my application for the job of Almighty Song Editor has been rejected, tough beans for me. The group’s encore included the title track of its new CD, a catchy number that blends pedal-steel country licks with a melodic Brit-pop mentality reminiscent of the Kinks.
I managed to get to the bar early enough to catch a smidgen of the opening set by local hard-rockers Pluto, who are currently making a name for themselves through a major-label deal with Virgin Records. The exquisite sound-shaping that would benefit the headliners was not in evidence during Pluto’s warm-up, but it wasn’t really required, either. Slashing guitars and wrecking-ball rhythms took the place of subtlety and nuance when Pluto was onstage—but in a good way—and the group’s raunchy power-punk helped churn the wax out of everybody’s ears.
No wonder Cracker sounded so goldarn sweet.