Before this KDHX-welcomed show Cracker put out a call on Facebook for help with Frank Funaro's drum set in exchange for two free tickets. Local photographer and drummer Corey Woodruff stepped up to the plate and lent the band what they needed and brought his camera along to shoot the show.
Currently on a short winter tour that started a couple of days after Christmas, the bands got out on the road to play dates on the West Coast, Midwest and East Coast. Two years ago, when the Cracker / Camper Van Beethoven double bill came to the Pageant, it was one of the coldest nights in St. Louis in the last decade; ambient temperature sunk below zero and wind chill was 20 or more degrees below. "It's much warmer here tonight than the last time we were here," Lowery noted.
With the season in mind, last night was a lesson in rock 'n' roll economy. Two bands and seven musicians utilized the same stripped-down stage set up. As the frontman for both bands, Lowery pulled a double shift, as did drummer Frank Funaro. While the musicians on the sides of the stage switched up, the equipment largely stayed the same throughout -- an easy night for the road crew for sure.
Debuting in 1985, Camper Van Beethoven, with their Eastern Europe-tinged mix of pop, ska, folk and country, predated Gogol Bordello by almost 20 years. As noted by David Lowery in my interview with him this week, the band is working on a new album slated for a summer release.
In between dates on the Cracker double bill tour, Camper Van Beethoven has played other gigs as the headliner in the Midwest; the recent touring seemed to contribute to their tight performance. Last time through town, Lowery used his Mac laptop for reference during the evening. Leaving his computer on the bus, Lowery easily guided his long-time friends through an hour-long set in which the band worked a few new songs into the show while making sure to play old favorites like "Tania" and "Take the Skinheads Bowling" that fans came to see.
The violin of Jonathan Segal cut through the mix during instrumentals and the thin guitar sound from Greg Lisher's Telecaster and Lowery's Rickenbacker only added to the effect. The rhythm section of Funaro and Victor Krummenacher on bass held the bottom end well. The band sounded best playing songs "Sweethearts," "All Her Favorite Fruit" and "Pictures of Matchstick Men" from "Key Lime Pie"; the band had played the entire album during select shows last year.
As noted by a friend during the concert, there's no way that Cracker could play before Camper Van Beethoven on this double bill. With Johnny Hickman's Gibson Les Paul and Sal Maida's deep bass, the full, rich sound overshadows. As always, Hickman, the professional guitar slinger, utilized his excellent chops to full effect. The key part to the strength of the band -- besides Lowery's songwriting that is -- Hickman plays soulful country twang one minute while ripping into rock riffs and bluesy solos the next. While Maida and Funaro don't shine in the spotlight, their backbeat holds the group tightly together for the best lineup in band's history.
Lowery had even less to say between songs during the Cracker set than the hour he spent on stage fronting Camper Van Beethoven. As a result, the band played a rather quick 19-song set, a cross-section approach highlighting songs from all points of their catalog.
The slot of "Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)" seemed a bit early, but I can't begrudge Lowery for wanting to get a song he's been playing for 20 years out of the way. Nicely followed up with "Don't Fuck Me Up (With Peace and Love)" the two songs from Cracker's debut album got their portion of the evening rolling well.
The middle of the set demonstrated the versatility and depth of Cracker as a unit. They played a mini-set of country starting with the wry wit of the Hickman-penned "Friends" from their last studio release, "Sunrise in the Land of Milk And Honey." The band followed that up with Ray Wylie Hubbard's "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mothers," from their covers record "Countrysides." Then two St. Louis favorites from their classic album "Kerosene Hat" followed in succession featuring the talents of Hickman: great understated lead guitar work on "Euro Trash Girl" and lead vocal and on the twangy "Lonesome Johnny Blues." Another cover of Merle Haggard's "Reasons to Quit" brought the country portion to a close.
The 51-year-old Lowery seemed to lack the energy to take the Cracker set into the stratosphere, but a slow build up back to the '70s-tinged classic rock began. The band sounded upbeat on "Get Off This," then the sad waltz of "Big Dipper" brought things down again. The momentum picked up with "Someday" and continued with a request from Beatle Bob of their cover of the Flaming Groovies' "Shake Some Action" from the "Clueless" soundtrack.
As the main set ended on a high note with the hit "Low" and a funky "Gimme One More Chance" from "Greenland," the crowd was ready for more. Taking only a short break, the band emerged from the shadows to play "100 Flower Power Maximum" as the encore. Unfortunately, another questionable decision of set-list writing (also evidenced by Lowery's solo date at Blueberry Hill last spring) ended this show on an off-beat note.
Opening the night was the Poison Control Center, a quartet of 20-something musicians from Ames, Iowa, playing a mix of punchy rock with loads of energy. Both guitar players and the bass player sang throughout their 30 plus minute set, with each member's songs showcasing different rock styles -- post pop, punk and slacker lo-fi -- making for an uneven set list.
Hearing songs from their strong 2011 sophomore album "Stranger Ballet" -- including "Some Ordinary Vision" and the Pavement-esque "Drakula's Casket" -- would have been enough to send me looking to buy an album. But beginning with the first song that saw three guitar solos while in a headstand, the band pulled nearly every other guitar player's trick out of the playbook (splits, Pete Townsend jump, Eddie Van Halen knee slide) -- the antics added little. Words like cliché and derivative just scratch the surface of describing what I saw.
If the band felt that the expansive stage at the Pageant needed to be filled with these theatrics they were wrong. By the time the band played the likable "Torpedoes on Tuesday," a post-pop toe-tapper near the end of the set, I had become bored with the shtick. In the live setting, the Poison Control Center seems best served sticking with a smaller venue and more live rehearsal time to get their best material across to the audience.
Cracker set list:
Been Around The World
Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)
Don't Fuck Me Up (With Peace and Love)
Hand Me My Inhaler
Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother (Ray Wylie Hubbard)
Euro Trash Girl
Lonesome Johnny Blues
Reasons to Quit (Merle Haggard)
Turn on Tune in Drop Out With Me
Get Off This
The Man in Me (Bob Dylan)
Shake Some Action (The Flamin' Groovies)
Gimme One More Chance
100 Flower Power Maximum