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POP MUSIC REVIEW : Down and Dirty at the Coach House : Cracker's motley crew plays a greasy brand of rock with raspy melodies and rich harmonies. Opening act Eli Riddle shows real potential with its sparkling set.


SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO — If Garth Brooks were a buddy of rock band Cracker, he'd be able to boast that he had friends in real low places.

This trio of old friends from Redlands (plus a hired-hand drummer from Sacramento) formed a truly motley crew Wednesday night at the Coach House.

Wearing a baseball cap backward, his bony frame covered by a horizontally striped shirt and baggy shorts over sweat pants, leader David Lowery looked like Dennis the Menace grown to slightly cynical manhood. In place of impish interjections of "Gosh, Mr. Wilson," Lowery, formerly the singer of '80s college-rock darlings Camper Van Beethoven, provided jaundiced lyrical commentary in songs with titles such as "Don't (Expletive) Me Up (With Peace and Love)." He also sang raucous accounts of seeking, but not necessarily finding, sexual release, and maybe some romance as well.

Lowery sang in a very raspy voice. On a scale of raspiness that runs from Joe Strummer (incredibly raspy, can hardly sing a lick) to Joe Cocker (unbelievably raspy, but sings angelically), Lowery fell rather close to Strummer--yet his voice was tuneful enough to do justice to Cracker's invariably catchy melodies. In any case, Lowery had his motley pals to augment the vocal sound with homey but rich harmonies.

On one side was the little guitarist, Johnny Hickman, who sported the world's most useless headband, overgrown by an alarming tangle of frizzy dark underbrush posing as hair. Given his size and vaguely seedy look, Hickman was somewhat reminiscent of Nils Lofgren, former sidekick to both Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, and a fine rocker in his own right. Hickman didn't play with the sizzling dexterity and inventiveness of a Lofgren, but the juicy, dirty-twanging licks he kept coaxing out of his Les Paul were nothing to be ashamed of.

To the other side was bassist Davey Faragher, a large fellow in ladies' sheer hose and a glittering green mini-dress that might have been stolen from Tina Turner's closet. Top off the look with a hairdo of braided dreadlocks and you have-- voila! --Boy George's dream date.

Forget it: No way Garth would be caught dead with these guys, no matter how much he preaches tolerance in "We Shall Be Free," the idealistic hymn he wrote that country radio wouldn't play.

But anyone who likes the rocking side of country would be hard pressed not to like Cracker's way with dusty, greasy, twanging stuff. With drummer Michael Urbano bashing a tough, unfastidious trash-can beat, and Faragher thumping out meaty bass lines that made you consider him not as a transvestite, but as a player, Cracker kept rocking assuredly through the 85-minute show, at tempos fast, medium and slow.

The Stones doing "Dead Flowers" or "The Girl With the Faraway Eyes," or Neil Young & Crazy Horse bombing their way through "The Losing End" or "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere" were the operative models for much of the set--and those are pretty fine models.

In tunes such as the funky "Cracker Soul" and "Mr. Wrong," Lowery and comrades used that clod-kicking musical style to play up the reprobate, good-for-nothin' image that their band's name conveys. "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)," served up early in the set, lampooned the notion of rock aspiring to serious meaning. Lowery spat out the now-somewhat-famous refrain:

What the world needs now is another folk singer,

Like I need a hole in the head . . .

What the world needs now is a new Frank Sinatra

So I can get you in bed.

But Lowery is far too cagey and complex, and as his history in the musically omnivorous Camper Van Beethoven suggests, far too restless to be pinned down for a whole show, let alone an entire career, playing the part of a character who'd feel at home matching tequila shots with the protagonist of Jerry Jeff Walker's "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother."

Lowery slew the hobgoblin of dull consistency by singing "Sweet Hearts," a critique of Ronald Reagan from Camper Van Beethoven's last album, "Key Lime Pie" (1989). So much for the world not needing another folk singer.

Like perhaps 90% of rock musicians, Lowery doesn't have much use for Reagan. But, unlike the 90% of rock songs about Reagan that offered nothing but obvious invective, "Sweet Hearts" achieved complexity and insight. Until its somewhat heavy-handed ending, the song subtly, almost obliquely evokes Reagan's capacity for occupying a warm world of fantasy, where heroism and kindness prevail and the good is easily discerned from the bad. What's more, "Sweet Hearts" is far more plaintive and gentle in tone than it is sarcastic, and its sweet music hints at how we all might wish to dwell in fantasy rather than face harsher realities.

The song ends up skewering Reagan, but it at least lets Reagan be human. Without sounding dainty, something it isn't designed to do, Cracker offered up a sensitive reading of the song.

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