Cracker, Jason Isbell, Kramus
8 Seconds Saloon
Friday, Nov. 9
Upon first sight, Indy’s rugged, Western-themed 8 Seconds Saloon looks impressive; it’s a giant space filled with a dance floor — cornered off by gates like a horse pen — a bar and the side of a “livery stable” jutting out from one wall. Near the stage, a life-sized mural of Route 66 lines another wall, opposite Jack Daniels and Coors Light promotions. It’s a sports-friendly country venue for live music, and what better place to see alt-country act Cracker perform?
But first, Connersville, Ind.’s Kramus opened with a hard rock, Top 40 sound filtered through Hoosier country. At times out of tune — though frontman Matt Ledford did have his metal growls down — the band managed to rock its guitar parts, courtesy of a Slash doppelganger named Jeremy Lovins. However, their studio recordings have exceeded their performance at this particular show. Listen for yourself at myspace.com/kramus.
The first thing fans noticed when Alabama’s Jason Isbell and his band stepped on stage was most likely the miniature image of Jesus projected on Ryan Tillery’s drumhead. This seemingly holographic figure lit up like a rainbow while Isbell crooned Cedar, honey-toned Southern rock and blues, backed by the organ sounds of his keyboardist and the brassy sounds of the rest of his “400” band.
Isbell (Drive-By Truckers) is on the national Tornado Alley Tour with Cracker, supporting his solo album, “Sirens of the Ditch.” Live highlights at the Indy show included the rock ballad “Try,” “Dress Blues,” “Chicago Promenade” other Americana tunes. The kicker was a cover of Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” which stemmed off the heels of a guitar solo by Browan Lollar that made it look like his fingernails were about to rub off and bleed against his guitar strings.
Remember “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” the theme song from Michael Moore’s controversial documentary “Bowling for Columbine”? That track is a Camper Van Beethoven staple, the precursor band to guitarist/vocalist David Lowery’s legendary group, Cracker. And as Lowery and his three bandmates began their set, his first comment to the audience fell on welcome ears. “We’re gonna start playing to the spirit of this place,” Lowery said.
Cracker opened with a countrified version of “Mr. Wrong,” much more laid-back than the last time I heard it performed live at Bogart’s in Cincinnati, Ohio, about six years ago. After that concert, I waited an hour outside of the venue to greet and hug Lowery and his cohort, guitarist Johnny Hickman. But this time, I wasn’t as determined to rub shoulders with the musicians.
Breaking into a fan favorite, “Euro-trash Girl,” Cracker didn’t hit their crescendo until midway through the song, finally electrifying the concert. It was evident by Lowery’s drastic weight-loss and rugged looks that he had been through serious changes since I last saw him perform. He didn’t quite have the same spark as before, which is evident in his emotional, autobiographical new album, “Greenland.” But Hickman was right on track, wooing the audience with speedy guitar licks and his familiar greaser-punk style.
A handful of new tracks from “Greenland” were thrown into the classic Cracker mix, including “Everybody Gets One for Free” and “Something You Ain’t Got.”
Cracker even played “Movie Star” from “Kerosene Hat” (Virgin, 1993), getting the crowd more excited, and by the end of the song, Lowery was in full force, shouting the lyrics. It was the perfect segue into “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now).”
Among cigarette smoke clouds, Hickman made it through a spectacular “Lonesome Johnny Blues,” during which he took the reigns as vocalist. On “Sweet Thistle Pie,” he broke out a harmonica and hit the high notes. Later, Lowery took things over with “Low,” Cracker’s biggest mainstream hit, only to break into another a track off Hickman’s solo record, “Palmhenge” (Campstove Records, 2005), called “Friends.” But the final encore, “Maggie,” off “Greenland,” exposed Cracker for what they really are — an archetypal rock band with serious staying power.