Concert Preview

Rock band Cracker to play free concert in Downtown Raleigh

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJune 24, 2013 

Cracker, from left, Frank Funaro, Johnny Hickman, David Lowery and Sal Maida.

COURTESY OF JASON THRASHER

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    Who: Oak City 7 show with Cracker, Justin Robinson & the Mary Annettes, Blanko Basnet and Blue Angel Blue

    When: Thursday, 6:30 p.m.

    Where: City Plaza, 400 Fayetteville St., downtown Raleigh

    Cost: Free

    Details: oakcity7.com

Whatever else Cracker plays at the band’s Thursday night show in Raleigh, here’s at least one lead-pipe cinch: “Low” will be in the set list somewhere. A Cracker show without “Low” would be like James Taylor skipping “Fire and Rain,” or the Rolling Stones overlooking “Satisfaction.”

The leadoff track to 1993’s “Kerosene Hat” album, “Low” isn’t the only hit Cracker ever had. But it’s definitely the longest-lasting, to the point that you still hear frontman David Lowery’s existential stoner yelp and Johnny Hickman’s jangling guitar riff in the air with some regularity.

Perhaps fittingly, given the subject matter, “Low” came into being amid a total lack of expectations. It began as little more than a guitar riff that Hickman started messing around with at a pre-show soundcheck. His bandmates thought enough of it to start playing along, and a song was born.

“Yeah, that one came while they were fixing the speakers at a club in Portland, Ore., and it was just a jam that me, Johnny and Davy (Faragher, Cracker’s then-bassist) made up,” says Lowery. “A lot of times, the songs that end up as hits, you make up pretty fast. That one did come quick. But I still never imagined it as a single.”

Indeed, Lowery says that there were other songs the band spent a lot more time working on during the “Kerosene Hat” sessions (and Hickman concurs that “nobody was thinking of it as ‘The One’ ”. But the label thought enough of “Low” to make it the album’s first single, and it immediately took off.

One thing working in the track’s favor was its now-iconic video featuring Lowery getting a serious beat-down in a boxing ring. That came about after video director Carlos Grasso discussed the song with Lowery and decided it was about a war between the singer’s own masculine and feminine halves. To represent Lowery’s femininity, they chose actress Sandra Bernhard – who was a great sport about donning boxing gear and climbing into a ring set up in a Los Angeles River culvert.

According to Grasso, however, the video still wasn’t nearly as outlandish as what he envisioned.

“The band trusted my aesthetic judgment pretty well and they were happy to do whatever,” he says. “You know, ‘I’m gonna bury you halfway in the ground’ – fine. But we couldn’t get away with everything. There’s a version with a nude model, which never came out. Just some indulgence I decided we had to do: ‘You know what, there should be a nude girl in this.’ It was really terrific, but nobody wanted to touch it. The label told us, ‘Beautiful as it is as a sort of bookend, we, uh, don’t know what to do with this.’ ”

But that was all forgotten as time went by and “Low” kept getting airplay. It never climbed all that high on the pop singles chart, peaking at only No. 64 on Billboard’s Hot 100. But it was all over MTV (which actually played music videos back then) as well as the burgeoning commercial-alternative radio format that sprang up in the Seattle grunge band Nirvana’s wake.

Two decades on, “Low” looms large enough to qualify as a signifier of its era – there’s just something about it that says “early first-term Clinton Administration.” Last year, director Stephen Chbosky included it in the soundtrack to his film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” alongside vintage alterna-oldies from the Smiths, Sonic Youth and XTC.

“It’s still regularly played on the radio to this day, even after 20 years,” Lowery says. “It was kind of a hit on alternative radio, then it was a hit on rock radio, a little bit on pop radio and now it’s this ‘Classic Gold’ recurrent. Between all the different formats, it’s probably played about as much now as when it was new.”

Now that’s a hit.

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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