Gig review: CRACKER – Dingwalls, London, 7 December 2015

A spirit-lifting gig on a miserable Monday night from an inventive band who refuse to be pigeon-holed.

Cracker have variously been described as alt rock, alt country, country rock, post-punk and blues-folk. I kid you not. Who needs labels when you can spin a yarn as compelling as front man David Lowery does; or nail a lick as smoothly as guitarist Johnny Hickman does.

This was the band’s only UK date of the current tour and the first since their double album ‘Berkeley to Bakersfield’ emerged a year ago. That album showcases both their rockier (Berkeley) and country (Bakersfield) modes. Choice tracks from the collection were sprinkled liberally throughout the first half of tonight’s set.

The opener, ‘Torches and Pitchforks’ set a mellow, acoustic mood for some accomplished old school country lilts. Pedal steel guitarist Pistol Stoessel has been retained from the album recordings for the live shows. He combined beautifully with Johnny Hickman, creating some deft interplay on tracks like ‘Almond Grove’ and ‘Where Have Those Days Gone’.  Hickman took the mic for a couple of tracks too.

Lowery, not shy of a carefully directed slice of sarcasm or cynical twist of lyric, was in reflective mood. Introducing ‘California Country Boy’, he had some heartfelt words about the recent shootings in San Bernardino, close – almost too close – to where the band is based in the Golden State. The crowd responded warmly to his sentiments.

The mood shifted with a fine rendition of the live staple, ‘Low’ kicking on a growling riff and slices of sharp, angular guitar splitting the track wide open; and then up another gear for ‘Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now) driven by a pumping rhythm and Lowery’s  insistent, ironic lyrics: the crowd calling out ‘…Like I need a hole in my head’ on the infectious chorus.

Pistol disappeared stage left for much of the second half of the gig as Cracker rolled up their sleeves and cranked out some muscular country rock. ‘100 Flower Power Maximum’ and ‘Time Machine’ were smashed out with all the verve and energy of that uncomfortable post-punk label, Lowery the focal point; whilst ‘Sweet Potato’ from probably their biggest album, ‘Kerosene Hat’ was all swagger and groove.

The band played with great confidence and freedom. Hickman, in particular, is a joy to watch. Wielding a low slung, battered and heavily modified Gibson Les Paul, he liked to fix the punters with a beady stare as he cranked out another withering solo. Or to creep across the stage in 3-inch platform loafers (I kid you not). I think I’ve found myself a new guitar hero.

The set proper climaxed with a riotous ‘Euro-Trash Girl’ ripped out with more reckless  abandon than the recorded version. Cue unashamed dancing down the front and harmonious chorus-chanting everywhere.

The band came back for two genuinely-sought rather than routinely-delivered encores. First up ‘Get Off This’ dripping with Lowery’s satire and scorn; followed by ‘Wedding Day’ with Pistol back on stage adding texture and colour. Then ‘One Fine Day’ which ascended new heights: a slow burn, blues-tinged anthem giving way to a series of soaring Hickman breaks that Neil Young and Crazy horse would drool over. Finally, back to ‘Gentleman’s Blues’ for show closer, ‘The World Is Mine’.

Cracker delivered a creative, eclectic and edgy set of genre-defying tunes that deserved a bigger crowd and more dates. Maybe next time. I know I’ll be there.

Review by Dave Atkinson

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