Tonight in New Orleans, two American iconic alternative bands will each play an album from their catalogue, back to back, and in its entirety. Camper Van Beethoven’s Key Lime Pie and Cracker’s Kerosene Hat shall shake the walls of Tipitina’s and provide an experience maybe no one might expect. It being 2011, not 1989 or 1993 respectively, it’s fair to ask “Why?” Recently I swapped emails with Cracker’s guitarist Johnny Hickman, and here’s what he had to say:
JPV: Welcome back to New Orleans! This show contributes to a trend in live performance insofar as playing an entire album. What does this mean to you as a musician, playing something from start to finish you composed almost 20 years ago? And what do you think it might mean to the audience?
JH: Thank you for welcoming us back, Jean Paul. I think this show celebrates the fact that albums are originally sequenced in a certain order for a reason. In the digital age we all put songs from different albums and artists in a way that we want them but I think it’s good to remember that they were meant to be heard in a sequence, not unlike the chapters of a book. There are musical and artistic flows that both bands used to tell the stories of these albums. People will get to feel that in a live setting at the show of course.
JPV: Playing Tips tonight will be one of many appearances there. By my recollection your most recent performance there was after Katrina. David Lowery came out prior to the show and with the house lights up spoke seemingly reverently of being able to play the space and in New Orleans in general. Then you guys opened with “Heaven Knows I’m Lonely Now,” which crushed me as an evacuee and returnee. It could get pretty quiet in the city what with displaced population, devastated homes and businesses, not to mention being occupied by one’s own armed forces in the evenings and days after we were allowed to return to New Orleans. Am I reading into that song choice as the opener?
JH: There was a palpable sadness in the air that evening of course and I’m sure it had something to do with “Heaven Knows” being the opener. Cracker almost never uses a set list live but we are sensitive to the mood of the audience especially in circumstances like that one. Days after 911 happened we had a week of shows where I started the show with a slide guitar version of “Amazing Grace,” then the band joined in, then the audience most nights.
JPV: What, if any, connection does Cracker have to New Orleans? Have you guys lived here, recorded here? I’ve always wondered this especially with the cut “Take Me Down To The Infirmary” from Kerosene Hat and the New Orleans classic “St James Infirmary.” Any parallels?
JH: Infirmary’s lyrics may very well have been influenced by St. James. You will have to ask David at the show. For the most part the connections we have to New Orleans are emotional and derive from some great shows and audiences we have had here over the last 20 years. Personally, it’s my favorite city in the United States. The musical history, the multicultural population, the stupendous cuisine, the magic of The Quarter make the city a national treasure. I wish every U.S. citizen could know that and feel it like we have for years. On our very first tours I fell in love with these things and we were heartbroken after Katrina. Returning to play Tips again is an honor.
JPV: Full disclosure: when Cracker played Tips back in ’93 in support of Kerosene Hat it was my first show ever at Tips (but my second Cracker show), and in all honesty I still have the t-shirt and – ask my wife – I wear it with some frequency. So for me to be able to to return to this moment in time is fantastic. I recall from that show Cracker played the Camper Van Beethoven song off Key Lime Pie “Sweethearts,” but tonight that album too will be played in its entirety. There’s a clear and definitive line between the bands and let’s call them their legacies, as a founding member of Cracker what’s your take on “the other band”? Presumably you were a fan before founding Cracker with David, yes?
JH: Yes. Having grown up in the same small town, (Redlands CA) David and I have the longest relationship of anyone in the two bands. We each had local bands there in the 80s and so had followed each other’s careers and staed in touch over the years when we reunited. When CVB broke up in we tracked each other down and formed Cracker. All of the band members of both bands have known each other for decades now. I was and still am very proud of David’s accomplishments. CVB were one of the most influential bands of their time.
JPV: Kerosene Hat is arguably the band’s most well received and commercial album. When it came out it took the CD format to the “hidden track” level. Let’s be honest: it has 99 tracks, right? I mean, not 99 songs, but places on the disc. Among them is The Grateful Dead’s “The Loser.” Jerry Garcia passed away 2 years after this recording. Perhaps he heard it? Even if he didn’t, when you perform it now, any particular thoughts or emotions go with it? Aside, I drove through Abilene last summer.
JH: Kerosene Hat was our second album and definitely brought us to a new level. The reason for the hidden tracks had to do with the record company believing the album was too long. We snuck a few songs on at mastering and in the long run we were vindicated because “Euro-Trash Girl” became a hit. We played a few shows with The Grateful Dead not long before Jerry passed. He told David and I that he really liked our version of “The Loser” and that he and Bob really liked “Euro-Trash Girl” too. Quite an honor.
JPV: I always had an unfounded suspicion there might be more lyrics to “Euro-Trash Girl” or to the uninitiated track 69. And this suspicion was fueled by (a) the writing process being one of drafts and redrafts but also (b) track 99 has let’s call it an alternate, outtake, or by today’s lingo “lite” version of the title track “Kerosene Hat.” With European destinations referenced in the song (Paris, Barcelona, Berlin, etc) and as it ambles along the possibilities seem endless. Wishful thinking or are there “Euro-Trash Girl” outtakes in a vault somewhere?
JH: We wrote it in a hotel room in New Jersey of all places but the various members of the band had all been to Europe and had colorful memories to say the least. David of course wrote the lion’s share of the lyrics but we were all telling stories. I imagined that the protagonist would die and David laughed “No, we shouldn’t kill him.” Instead we came up with the scene with the sergeant together. With the adventures we’ve had over there over the years there certainly COULD have been more chapters to the story.
JPV: Final thoughts, in a couple of years Cracker will be eligible for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (CVB is eligible now – or are they in?). The future holds what for you, Cracker, and CVB?
JH: Only time will tell I suppose. Most bands last about 5 or 6 years on average. The facts that Cracker has lasted 20 years and CVB have lasted that long with a break in the middle are already beyond the odds. We don’t play as often as we once did because we have families and other interests but we are very aware of what loyal fans we have around the world. Many of the great blues and jazz players played into their 80s and 90s. As long as we are enjoying playing live we will continue to do so.
Jean-Paul Villere is the owner of Villere Realty and the Du Mois gallery on Freret Street and father of four girls. In addition to his Wednesday column at UptownMessenger.com, he also writes an occasional real-estate blog at villererealty.com and shares his family’s adventures via pedicab on Facebook and Twitter.