POP / Cheese please

Cracker / Counting Crows - Shepherd's Bush
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The Independent Online
When the curious and strangely menacing Camper Van Beethoven dissolved a few years back, frontman David Lowery assembled Cracker. You can hardly see the joins, though there are now thick helpings of bar-room blues, honky-tonk and thigh-slapping country.

This isn't necessarily a good thing. Cracker are abrasive and startling - they may be the only band peddling folk-metal - but when they stray into rootsy waters, the Experience is more Colourblind James than Jimi Hendrix. ``Yee-ha!'' yells a wag during one such digression. Quite.

Lowery's writing is still engagingly wayward. Tonight, at the Empire, we get the selling of plasma in Amsterdam, decapitation, soldiers in drag. And that's just the first two songs. Genet might have approved.

Since Camper split and REM went big time, the shelf marked ``alternative'' has been groaning with bands who would otherwise have been (or, in the case of Stone Temple Pilots, should have been) buried five years ago.

Counting Crows are unusual among such beneficiaries: they deserve acclaim. Their smooth soulfulness is pronounced when Prince's ``Sometimes It Snows in April'' gets plundered over the final bars of ``Perfect Blue Buildings''.

David Bryson makes judicious use of the wah-wah, while Steve Bowman's skew-whiff drum patterns on the opening ``Ghost Train'' are tight and disorientating. They end by romping through ``Maggie May'', singer Adam Duritz slipping gracefully into its American idiom so the song sounds like his own.

Duritz is a fairly unassuming slacker type - jeans opened at the knees, hair clotted in spidery dreads. You could imagine him cleaning cars, painting porches or stealing his daddy's cue to make a living out of playing pool.

But his voice, pitched between Eddie Vedder and the creaking wail of a 14-year-old who's almost through puberty, has tremendous sustain and command. Unlike Vedder, he can hold a note with assurance while still suggesting that it might splinter at any moment. Once, it does - during ``Mr Jones'' he croaks, wincing as though a fist were being shaken at him.

Such impromptu hiccups make the fallibility touched upon in the lyrics poignant and raw. Duritz writes in the conversational-poetic style of Joni Mitchell, as the generous instrumentation - a trilling mandolin, the moaning accordion and organ on ``Omaha'' - ebbs along with him.

The haunting ``Round Here'' begins: ``Step out the front door like a ghost / into the fog where no one notices / the contrast of white on white''. And a single, fractured phrase - ``'Dad, they broke me'' - proves equally troubling when it returns to you, out of context.

Even his ad libs are sharpened with similes. The crush turns front-row faces berry-red, and he implores the crowd to move back `` `cos there's a fence here, and everyone's gonna get shredded like cheese, it'll be disgusting''. He could so easily have plumped instead for ``Hello Shepherd's Bush, let's ROCK!'' But that's just not his style.

(Photograph omitted)