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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

At his best, Lowery wove together strands of irony and honest feeling. "Euro-Trash Girl" was a delicious mock epic, a picaresque song whose protagonist, a modern-day Quixote, travels the European continent, moving from disaster to comic disaster in search of his Dulcinea, or, as Lowery puts it, "my angel in black." But a romantic quest, no matter how funny, is still romantic, and that combination of the absurd and the admirable came across in music that deftly melded humorous country strains ( a la "The Girl With the Faraway Eyes") with a firm, questing rhythm that echoed Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic."

Don't ever call this Cracker dumb.

Eli Riddle, which opened the three-band bill, has been slow to make a major impact on the local scene, despite a fine pedigree: three of the band's four members played in Eggplant, which issued two excellent albums on Doctor Dream Records before breaking up about a year and a half ago.

But a sparkling 45-minute set signaled that Eli Riddle is gaining momentum. After a slow start, the band's strengths kicked in. Chief among them were Jon Melkerson's fluid, vibrato-thickened guitar leads and the drumming of Dave Tabone, who generated surging energy that hinted at explosiveness while staying in control and remaining attuned to the requirements of Eli Riddle's frequently complex song structures.

An unassuming performer, Melkerson often writes about characters who approach life with doubt and hesitancy, yet somehow manage to move beyond that reticence toward some declaration of selfhood. As the show went on, you could hear Melkerson's singing grow in assurance. He betrayed some of that native reticence when he announced that the set closing song "Images," is "about my dog." In fact, the song was a poignant portrait of a man who looks to a lover to assuage his fears, only to have her "laugh at my love." Melkerson's finely etched guitar work hinted at barely contained passions.

The question now is whether Eli Riddle can go a step farther, pushing beyond the boundaries of a song and letting the passions flow over the top. It has the makings of a potentially gripping rock band--if the shyness that marks its stage demeanor and that forms its key lyrical theme doesn't hold it back.

Playing in the second slot, Too Many Joes was another veteran Orange County band that seems to be gaining confidence with experience. Andrena Douglass, the band's lead singer and main songwriter, appeared more relaxed behind the microphone, moving easily as she strummed her guitar, and even doing a playful pirouette at one between-songs juncture.

Douglass and Kristine Kunego sang in flawless close-harmony, and Nick Benich's textured guitar parts glistened. Too Many Joes' sound has always flowed like wafting breath or coursing water; a new bassist, Landon Donsbach, made sure to bolster the beat before adding on grace notes, which helped to firm up the overall sound. A new song, "Life Is What You Make of It," maintained the band's customary plaintive tone, but there was also some spine and urgency in Douglass's delivery. When the public gets tired of screaming sisters like L7 and Babes in Toyland, it might be ready for something like Too Many Joes' pretty, expertly rendered sound.

Eli Riddle plays Saturday at Bogart's in Long Beach, opening for Greta, Drink Deep and Lidsville; Too Many Joes and Eli Riddle will share a bill Jan. 8 at the Fullerton Hofbrau.

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