AND THEY'RE OFF!
New bassist Black Sal's first gig at Cain's Ballroom in Tulsa Oklahoma was a smashing success. Black Sal? Yes. Why? Because everyone in this band gets a nickname or two, often an absurd one. In this case, Kenny Margolis (our keyboardist/accordionist) who brought Sal in told the rest of us he was black. A black Cracker? Cool thought we. When Mr. Maida, a towering, blue eyed Sicilian American showed up for auditions it was clear that our collective legs had been pulled. Now naturally, he's "Black Sal". At least for now. As I mentioned before, in our world you get a few nicknames. More on that later.
WAKARUSA!....AND FESTIVAL LOVE.
Black Sal's second gig with Cracker is in front of a huge festival crowd on a sweltering Kansas afternoon. This after little or no sleep and learning a staggering number of songs in the past week or two. He triumphs, locking with Frank as song by song they lay the foundation of the new rhythm section that will propel us through a very busy summer and beyond. Earlier, as we carried our gear up the ramp at the back of the stage we found the Flaming Lips sound checking for their headlining show. Both CVB and Cracker had played with The Lips at festivals years ago… and today, they greet us warmly. Singer Wayne Coyne is dressed in a suit, one that almost looks the white inner lining of a suit, which somehow looks quite elegant on the slender, handsomely graying singer.
We compare freak guitars...mine tattooed and time-battered, his appearing to have been constructed of kids' toys and brightly colored hunks of plastic. In spite of what is most likely a busy press schedule he and his band mates stay and watch much of our shows from the side of the stage. Just before we sound checked earlier that same day, I was happily surprised to find that my wife and three year old son rode up from Colorado with our friend Bluejay (not a nickname but her given Native American one), here officially as photographer for both Relix magazine and Wakarusa. They join on side stage with the famous MC/hip rock and roll scenester "Beatle Bob" and other personalities.
After our early afternoon Cracker show, David and I perform for a live podcast. We play acoustic guitars, strumming for the microphones under shade trees behind the hospitality area, as pretty girls watch from the surrounding lawn. I love my job, especially on days like this one. We play "Something You Ain't Got" from our new album "Greenland" as well as "The Loser" written by Robert Hunter and the late Jerry Garcia. Garcia liked our version of his song on our "Kerosene Hat" album and subsequently invited us to open for The Grateful Dead for three consecutive shows in Eugene Oregon years ago. This is a piece of Lowery/Hickman history that inspires some good natured envy amongst our famous jam band friends. I'm proud to say that we even received a very rare (according to Jerry) standing ovation from the Dead audience. He also told David and I that he and Bob Weir liked our song "Euro-trash Girl" and had mentioned covering it with The Grateful Dead. Sadly, he passed away a year or so later and so we will never know how close we came to this high honor. But I humbly state that it's likely part of why Relix and other jam-oriented publications take interest in our band today. Garcia would have felt and looked right in place at Wakarusa.
It's relatively hippie-centric around here with it's tie dyed, patchouli scented throngs cavorting happily in the heat with yuppies, hip indie rock kids, bikers, families with small children in tow, and backward baseball cap frat boys with their well scrubbed girlfriends. Some musicians don't care for festivals, considering them a necessary, promotional pain in the ass. I love them and am always pleased to see them on the tour itinerary. I'll take the cramped, shared trailers that pass for dressing rooms, little or no hospitality food or beverages, little or no sound checks, and general confusion for the chance to be a part of something this magical. There is often a shared sense of commonality and respect amongst bands at festivals, that in a nightclub setting, might be more competitive. I live for the opportunity to watch and often sit in with fellow musicians that I admire. For over twenty years I've been fortunate enough to perform at festival type shows as diverse as:
Willie Nelson's Annual 4th of July Picnic in Austin Texas where I met Willie, Waylon Jennings AND Johnny Cash; Farm Aid 2 where I met Neil Young; Bonnaroo; The All Good Festival in West Virginia where David and I sat in with our buddies, legendary jamgrass band Leftover Salmon. I've played the European festivals Pink Pop, Hultsfred, Take Root, England's famed Reading Festival, and we have headlined The WHFEST in Washington D.C. with 40,000 people making the sound of a jet's roar as we walked onstage. I've sat in several times with my friends from Widespread Panic on both mandolin and harmonica.
And exhausting as the journey there may be, I never tire of it. I'm enjoying my first Wakarusa immensely so far as my little family and I hitch a ride on a festival golf cart and go careening through the lovely fray. On the ride I see familiar faces yelling "Alright Cracker!" and "Hey Johnny". I feel like a million bucks right now....wouldn't you? I am presented with my favorite "beer from home" (a bottle of Abbey, stashed in my wife's tent)… then we are dropped off at the New Belgium brewery booth to say hello to our fellow Coloradoans. New Belgium is the official beer of Wakarusa this time around. Soon we are handed frosty cups of what I consider one of the world's most delicious brews. It is like nectar from the Gods in the baking midwestern heat. Our three year old has just jumped into a football toss with some of the New Belgium guys.
Soon we gather him up and head to The Voodoo Stage to catch our good friends Roger Clyne And The Peacemakers. RCPM's regular drummer (and founding member of Rogers' first popular band The Refreshments) PH Naffah is absent, having snapped his collarbone a few weeks ago, just before their own hugely successful bi-annual "Circus Mexicus" festival in Puerto Penasco Mexico. In '05, I opened Circus Mexicus for the Peacemakers, playing much from my solo album, the then-new Palmhenge. Roger has often cited David and I as influences and made me feel more than welcome in his world. When Roger's management called and invited David and I both to Mexico for Spring '06, we signed right up. In the year between Roger and I had spent some time at his house down there writing music together and solidifying our friendship, sailing on his boat and stumbling down dusty, moonlit Mexican roads lit up on his own "Roger Clyne's Mexican Moonshine" tequila and our good fortune. But back to Wakarusa…it's nice to have a job where you run into the same friends in Mexico and then Kansas, only weeks apart.
As usual RCPM are delivering the goods to the fans in the Voodoo tent. They grin confidently, whipping the crowd of fans and curious newcomers into a shouting, fist pumping frenzy with their raucous Arizona desert rock. Standing in and doing a truly fine job is P.H.'s drum tech Louie. After show, back on Rog's tour bus, I see that Louie's hands are blistered and bloody from the new grind of playing every night. I am reminded of my own self inflicted injuries onstage throughout the years. I've more than once bloodied my hands from bashing away on my guitar a little too enthusiastically. I've also torn hell out of a ligament in my knee jumping off an amp and even after surgery still pay for it today. You just don't feel those things in the moment. Just ask Iggy Pop or Pete Townsend. Louie chuckles and wraps duct tape around his wounds to hold the bandages in place.
We climb off the bus and hitch a ride on a golf cart through the night as Roger hangs laughing on the back of the cart. As the older but questionably wiser of the two of us I am compelled to grab his arm and hold on tightly, not wanting to be known as the old pirate who let the famous Mr. Clyne fly off a golf cart to his untimely demise at a Kansas rock show. Soon we are foisting Fat Tires and standing in awe on the side of the stage as the spectacle of a Flaming Lips show unfolds before us. We are caught up in the glorious maelstrom of the moment, gladly volunteering to backlight a sea of 30 or so costumed green space aliens on stage right. For those who don't know, there is a nightly ritual of assigning eager Lips fans to wear costumes that range from huge stuffed animals to tonight's Aliens vs. Santas madness. On the other side of the stage is the army of Santas, a few female volunteers in bikinis with full white beards and hats. In their midst as in the alien camp looms a giant "leader". It is a truly Fellini-esque spectacle as the band launch into an audience participation rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. The charismatic Coyne, with arms outstretched as floodlit streamers spiral around him, is already holding the rapt and singing ten thousand plus crowd in the palm of his hand.
This, mere moments after he clowned graciously with Roger and I for Bluejay's camera backstage. As we laugh and cheer maniacally I am reminded of what drew me to Roger in the first place. In spite of fatherhood and myriad responsibilities he has never lost his childlike wonder and enthusiasm for new experiences and his general lust for life. I strive to always retain these traits in common with my good friend. Our wives and managers call us big five year olds. What a compliment!
My wife takes our three year old son over to the Santa Claus side of the stage. He returns soon, telling us the people Santas are nice, but the giant balloon Santa Claus has a man inside and scares the heck out of him. He is over it soon as I hoist him above the delicious insanity to see over the aliens heads, as Wayne climbs into an eight foot, transparent sphere and rolls out over the ecstatic throng. The look on my son's face is worth a million dollars to me at this moment. I suppose other kids go to basketball games and such. His reality, like his older half brother before him, is somewhat stranger. I recall my now college aged son at age seven, hanging out with his hero (and one of mine) Beck. The very young Beck was at the time just beginning to ascend in his now highly honored status as a true musical original. I will never forget his kindness to my little son back in the day. (Note: Beck's' father David Campbell was responsible for the hauntingly beautiful string arrangements on our album "The Golden Age". After meeting and working with his brilliant, soft spoken mad scientist like dad I can ponder how Beck might have come upon his admirably unique melodic sense. He must have been immersed in every style and genre of music from day one.)
After the Flaming Lips finale here at Wakarusa we all reconvene on Roger's bus to laugh and celebrate our lot in life. We gladly remark on how lucky we all are to be able to do what we do. At 1:30 AM Roger's crew of pirates laugh as my three year old tells them "oh, I'm not tired" at the same moment that he slumps backward into deep slumber, potato chip still in hand. The next morning he wakes up with a smile and says "Hey....let's go back and see Wayne in the big ball again!" I tell him that the show is over. "Maybe back at Wakarusa the show is still going!" he says. I hug and kiss my family and say a quick farewell, grab my guitar and bags to hop back aboard the Cracker tour van. Off to Texas! Thank you once again my friends...year after year you give me this life. Best wishes and good night, Johnny