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A voice that will haunt you: Richard Buckner at Valentine’s.

Smells Like Redemption

 

By Mike Hotter

Richard Buckner, The Luxury Flats

Valentine’s, July 17

Richard Buckner’s singing is akin to a poltergeist: Once you’ve let it in, it isn’t leaving, at least not without the help of a cleric. I first encountered it on his 1998 CD Since, all burnished timbre and soul- quaking melisma. Add his elliptical but evocative lyrics, mostly about the sputtering connections of failed romance, and when Buckner is on his game, there’s no one better at being the solitary bard. Monday night, Buckner was on.

He made sure there were no between-song lapses by making his set one long sonic mélange. His guitar signal was fed through a series of loops, delays and other effects that left him free to concentrate on singing as soon he set up the musical backdrop. There was a postpunk bent to the music, the strums occasionally building and blending into something like Sonic Youth’s “The Sprawl.” Evocative images flashed out of the murk like dream logic. “Trash it out/Are you happy now?” went one couplet, which seemed like a rejoinder to any would-be cynics in the crowd. The opening lyrics of “A Chance Counsel,” from this year’s Dents and Shells, encapsulated the mixture of photorealism and indeterminacy that are Buckner’s stock in trade: “Another washout, brake lights showing/Probably gonna slow down, no way of knowing.”

There’s something downright existential about Buckner’s songs; he sees the world poetically but clearly, with the darkness that lies hidden at its core. You go to his shows and wind up pondering love, philosophy, art and downed beer cans. There’s not much joy, but there is beauty and some hope, in the screech of wounded angels Buckner conjured up with his E-bow from time to time, and in the words of his signature closer, “Fater,” “Leave and travel well/Leave yourself and live to tell.” Then the brawny poet thanked us for our time and left the stage.

The Luxury Flats, currently based out of Hudson, were an apt opening band, dealing in fractured ruralisms and wry insights into the often-futile nature of human relations. The talented youngsters played a rare acoustic set, bright and soulful guitar lines shining amid the homey bric-a-brac of autoharp, fiddle and lap steel. This is the kind of good and quirky groove music we’d hear more of if classic-rock radio played stuff like David Crosby’s loopy first solo album and side two of Zeppelin’s III instead of the same 50 tracks they’ve had on repeat for the last 25 years.

Shine On

Cracker

Northern Lights, July 15

It was a great relief when Cracker finally hit the stage at Northern Lights, teasing out the burning desert groove of “St. Cajetan.” Leader David Lowery—in his desperate, skuzzy howl—repeatedly bellowed the signature line, “All I want is a cool drink of water” as able sidekick Johnny Hickman scorched out some barbarous tones from his guitar, whipping between twanged-out colors and searing rock. Cracker are still relevant and still great, 15 or so years down the road.

Cracker exist in a sort of no man’s land of rock, having infused Bakersfield twang, Southern-fried guitar meat, and traditional rawk into their prismatic “alternative” music long before those things became hip. The group also have done the major-label dance: Lowery waged a nasty war with former label Virgin Records, a scrap that culminated in the band recently rerecording all of their “hits” for a band-endorsed best-of compilation album. (The acrimony also led to the priceless major-label slam “Ain’t Gonna Suck Itself.”)

The current incarnation, bassist-singer Brandy Wood having departed, is frankly tighter than a clam’s ass; they also benefited from one of the powerfully clearest sound mixes these ears have heard this year. It’ s a good thing, too, as they were still sound-checking, and the crowd was still lined up out front, a good hour after the alleged start time. (Openers the Sense Offenders went on at 10 PM instead of 7:30.)

Cracker, who had driven all the way from D.C., went on close to 11 PM and didn’t seem much worse for the wear. I’ve seen them numerous times over the years (including their masterful Empire State Plaza set in 2002), and this was the best show I’ve witnessed. “Euro Trash Girl” came early, its lulling, groove-based narrative exploding again and again into exclamatory chorus. “Duty Free” was inspired, but it missed the high vocals of Brandy Wood. “Sweet Thistle Pie” came down like a cock-rock dinosaur on the crowd.

Lowery in his inimitable (i.e. impatient, sharp-tongued, downright nasty) way also handily took care of a heckler who kept shouting for Lowery’s other band, Camper Van Beethoven, by berating him and then playing the obscure nugget “The Shiner Song,” a polka-ish number sung in Czechoslovakian. Lowery demanded that the punter name the CVB album containing the song or risk expulsion from the club. (Neither happened.)

The beautiful number “Darling We’re Out of Time,” from the band’s new album, Greenland, stood with the best of the Cracker canon. While a triumphant “One Fine Day”—which burgles the guitar groove of Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’ s Last Dance”—left the crowd wrung out and satisfied.

Local openers the Sense Offenders had the misfortune of playing catch-up with their setup-soundcheck, fiddling for an hour while an impatient crowd stirred. The group play bristling, full-bore hard rock, weaving from sonic assault to (at times taking-themselves-way-too-seriously) soul-baring introspection. Instrumentally, they were tight and powerful, with guitarist Eric Halder (also of Charmboy) and drummer John Brodeur (Metroland editor and member of approximately a gazillion or so bands) standing out. But singer Tom McWatters’ intense bellow steered the group too heavily into frequent bouts of “constipation rock”—that is, a lot of strain and effort with little payoff.

—Erik Hage


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