With a dry, cerebral wit, Lowery, the Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven front man, discussed stories behind the songs and bantered with the knowledgeable, yet subdued, St. Louis crowd of roughly 125 "Cracker Soul" devotees. Helping to create the scene, the Duck Room set an array of small tables and chairs with longer rows of chairs filling in the gaps close to the stage. This arrangement and the mostly acoustic music seemed to keep the mostly 35 to 50-year-old crowd quiet throughout the show as conversations had to be kept low as to not disturb others.
Billed as the headliner, Lowery, the self-described "more bookish of the two," looked older and wiser in his plaid button-down shirt than Hickman. Armed with a parlor-sized acoustic guitar and MacBook, Lowery sat on a bar stool and played the first half of his set solo acoustic later being joined onstage by Hickman. Mostly he stuck to his new solo songs and more recent Cracker material into a mix of alternating stories and songs.
Beginning his set, Lowery spoke for ten minutes about his set opener "I Sold the Arabs the Moon" from his 2011 release, The Palace Guards. Lowery told the story of Cracker traveling to Iraq to play for the troops and traveling with soldiers from place to place, even traveling through the dangerous Sadr City when the unit got lost. The tale wove in the solemn humor of the U.S. troops joking about bombs on the radio to a veteran of the unit later coming to see the band backstage at a music festival in the United States exclaiming, "I can get this shit in Iraq!"
Not to leave his original musical project out, Lowery slipped in a song from the most recent Camper Van Beethoven release New Roman Times as he told the back story of the track "The Long Plastic Hallway," a tale of Lowery's college band Box O' Laffs playing as opener for the Talking Heads on a spaceship.
A sure highlight of the evening, Lowery treated the crowd to a solo acoustic version of Cracker's "I Want Everything" from the Kerosene Hat. With its five-minute-plus length, this deep track seems to rarely fit into a typically more raucous Cracker show much more than the hit song "Euro-Trash Girl" that constantly receives inclusion. The urge to belt out the chorus with Lowery as he sang must have been hard for some to contain.
Hickman joined Lowery for the second half of the set coloring the songs with his stellar guitar playing on his vintage Gibson Les Paul and fine harmonica work. A masterful guitar solo on "Been around the World" and harmonica work "Euro-Trash Girl" highlighted the second half of Lowery's performance.
While this was billed as a David Lowery show in support of his recent solo album and not a Cracker concert per se, the certain fact remains that those in attendance have an anticipation of particular length of set being performed; especially when the opener is your longtime band mate. Unfortunately, in this instance the casualty of Lowery's storyteller discussion was that the set list only contained 10 songs though he had the stage for about an hour and a half. At the very least the expectation of more songs from The Palace Guard would not be out of line. Other Cracker catalog favorites easily adapted to the "unplugged" type set – for instance, "Mister Wrong," "James River" or "Brides of Neptune" -- or just a chance to re-imagine an up-tempo song at a slower pace were never realized. To play devil's advocate, however, Cracker does visit St. Louis more often than some other national touring acts.
Taking the stage just after 9 p.m. dressed in a blue plaid shirt and black jeans and boots, Hickman stood with only his black Takamine acoustic guitar and harmonicas to play his part as opening act. Entertaining the crowd for approximately 45 minutes with a mostly upbeat set of songs from his various projects, Hickman played deep cuts from Cracker ("Trials & Tribulations" and "Wedding Day"), songs from his work in his "straight-up" country side project the Hickman-Dalton Gang (with Jim Dalton of The Railbenders and Roger Clyne & the Peacemakers) and solo material from his 2005 album, Palmhenge.
Hickman opened the set with "Costco Socks" a sardonic song about big box stores that he recorded some years ago with a Southern California group called The Hickmen that had the crowd laughing at the verses. His style is perfect for this type of setting with engaging stage banter and funny songs mixed with a great player's touch.
Near the end of his opening set, Hickman advised he is often asked how he is able to keep up a busy touring schedule. Hickman joked, "I get up in the morning and have my green tea, do my yoga, meditate and then later in the day I play some loud guitar and have some whiskey. It's all about the yin and yang." Near the back the crowd shouted out a request for "Little Queen Bee" which he happily obliged. Hickman ended the show with a new song about a proud construction man which fit perfectly as a bookend to the Bottle Rockets "Lucky Break." He relayed that he had never played the song how to write a personal essay live before and that it was from what he called the forthcoming Hickman-Dalton Gang Vol. 2.
Postscript: Both Lowery and Hickman mentioned during their sets that they were traveling in their tour vehicle in Southwest Missouri just 15 minutes behind the recent tornado that ravaged Joplin, Mo. This recent disaster may have affected the mood of the two road warriors as the introspective sets. In fact, in light of the damage Hickman recalled the quiet ride with Lowery from Springfield to St. Louis and dedicated his song "Lucky" to the people of Joplin.
Johnny Hickman set list
Trials & Tribulations
Hold My Drink While I Kiss Your Girlfriend? (Unreleased song)
Papa Johnny's Arms
San Bernardino Boy
Little Queen Bee
Construction Man? (Unreleased song)
David Lowery set list
I Sold The Arabs The Moon
Merry Christmas Emily
The Long Plastic Hallway
I Want Everything
Raise 'Em Up On Honey*
Hey Bret (You Know What Time It Is)*
Been Around The World*
* with Johnny Hickman