June 16, 2006

As Cracker was coming back onstage for their encore, I asked my friend Ryan what was next. He said, without hesitation, "Take Me Down to the Infirmary." His pick surprised me. I didn't know he was such a big fan that he would know an obscure song like that. I didn't believe him. I thought the band would close out the concert with a slew of hits, but then I heard Johnny Hickman's guitar play the mournful and plaintive vocal melody. I looked incredulously at Ryan and asked him if he studied their setlists. He just gave a smiling shrug, right before Hickman's clear and twangy tone turned me back around to the music. Throughout the rest of the song, Hickman's command of his instrument and his desire to squeeze every possible bit of emotion out of each note(sometimes by bedning notes) made "Infirmary" soar.

From their 1993 album "Kerosene Hat," "Infirmary" is a song about weakness, whether it be spiritual or love-related. In these days of post-Katrina stress disorder, I know at least I and a couple of friends can relate to these lyrics:

"Take me down/To the infirmary/Lay me down/On cotton sheets/Put a damp cloth/On my forehead/Lay me down/And let me sleep/

I know the whiskey won't soothe my soul/And the morphine won't heal my heart/But if you take me down to the infirmary/I won't have to sleep or drink alone/

So, take me downTo the infirmary/Walk a sound that is as blue as her eyes/Oh, Sister Magdelene won't you fetch the doctor's flask/He is going to need a steady, a steady hand/

I know the whiskey it won't soothe my soul/And the morphine won't heal my heart/But if you take me down to the infirmary/I won't have to sleep or drink alone/

So, take me down to the infirmary/Lay me down on cotton sheets/Put a damp cloth on my forehead/Lay me down, let me sleep/Lay me down, let me sleep."

It's such a beautiful blues. The band delivered the song with reverence, and lead singer/guitarist David Lowery sang the lyrics as an exhausted man resigned. The song's Gospel intonations made my eyes well up, and its empathy warmed my heart. After the song, Ryan said with exuberation, "That's the best song they do." I couldn't argue, even though Cracker isn't really known for their slower, pondersome tunes.

They're known for more crowd-ready barn-burners like "Low" or "Get Off This" or "Teen Angst." "Get Off This" was left out of the show at Tipitina's Friday night, but "Low" and "Teen Angst" were sing-alongs for the initiated, which there seemed to be a lot of. It didn't seem like most of the audience lazily paid $15 for a band they didn't know. There was definetely a hard-core section of fans up front that was fist-pumping, shouting, and swaying. The mid-sized turnout was such that if you just had to be right up front, you could be.

The first thing I noticed before the show started was that Lowery was setting up his own equipment, which included an iBook that I'm sill not sure what he used for, considering I didn't hear any samples. Maybe it was just digital cheat sheets for lyrics and setlists. So, no more roadies, apparently. And this makes sense. Cracker is no longer on a major, riding a wave of radio play. Their popularity has dwindled, but that doesn't mean they've stopped making good music. Their new album, "Greenland," got four stars in the All Music Guide.

The band looked a little older, which makes sense, because they are. Hickman was still a showman, making eye contact with the crowd as he put his foot on the monitor and assumed all kinds of other guitar god poses. He's a ham. Lowery, on the other hand, picked his spots. Sometimes his delivery breathed too-cool-for-school nihilism, and at others, like during "Teen Angst," his body tensed up as he released his screams.

The band as a whole was less energetic that I'd seen them in the past. Though some of the songs came off as materpieces, mostly due to Hickman, there wasn't such a sense of urgency. Cracker still got across their devil-may-care, roam-the-world, smart-ass attitude. I really enjoyed the concert. The songs won out. They're timeless, and hopefully Cracker will be recognized for their output someday.

Incomplete Setlist, not in order:

1. Take Me Down to the Infirmary
2. Low
3. Teenage Angst
4. Eurotrash Girl
5. Something You Ain't Got
6. Everybody Gets One for Free
7. I'm So Glad She Ain't Never Coming Back
8. Bicycle Spaniard
9. I See The Light
10. Sweet Thistle Pie
11. Brides of Neptune
12. Shake Some Action
13. Heaven Knows I'm Lonely Now
14. How Can I Live Without You
15. Sweet Potato

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