Cracker majordomo David Lowery has always walked a fine line between tweaking the hippie sensibility with a puckish wink and giving that same sensibility a warm albeit fleeting hug when no one is looking. The first show of a tour supporting the band’s new “Forever” album, while not short on punky irony, was heavily weighted toward the latter response.
For the better part of two hours, Cracker re-created a 1969-vintage free festival on Irving Plaza’s stage: About the only things missing from the scene were frolicking dogs and tie-dye-clad tots. Lowery, a cowboy hat pushed down over his brows, held court at center stage as musicians came and went, playing in three distinct permutations — the core Cracker quartet, a lineup that virtually reunited Lowery’s previous band Camper Van Beethoven, and a hybrid combining the two entities.
When stripped down to basics, as on chugging versions of “Teen Angst” and “Mr. Wrong,” the band seemed built for comfort and for speed. Opening-night jitters that bubbled over when a sampler miscue sent a taped vocal track from the raucous “What You’re Missing” careening through the delicate “Big Dipper” were palpable but not overwhelming.
The double-strength band proved particularly potent on older Camper material that, like fine scotch, turns out to have aged quite well. While Lowery gingerly avoided the more novelty-oriented tunes from bygone days, he swung and swayed through a brace of Eastern European-inflected numbers (such as a spinning “Tonya,” keyed by Jonathan Segal’s spry violin) as well as some of Camper’s more surreal pieces (notably a slippery “Eye of Fatima”).
Lowery’s fondness for dirges can make for long stretches of uncomfortable foot-shuffling on the dance floor during “Heaven Knows I’m Lonely” and the half-speed waltz “Doctor Bernice.” “Sweet Thistle Pie” (on which Joan Osborne made an unannounced cameo), on the other hand, swung well enough to overcome the pacing.
Victor Krummenacher, Greg Licher and Segal, augmented by Lowery — who donned Skynyrd roadie drag as a disguise — opened the show with a set dominated by spare, high-desert Americana. The band, which has yet to settle on a name, exuded considerable warmth, but never really generated much of a spark in its 40 minutes onstage.
Cracker plays the House of Blues in West Hollywood April 26.