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Cracker frontman ready for battle
After tour of concerts for troops in Iraq, playing AthFest is cakewalk minus security
Members of Cracker are, from left, Johnny Hickman, Frank Funaro, David Lowery and Sal Maida. The band plays this Sunday in Athens. - photo by For The Times

When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pulaski stage, at the corner of
Pulaski and Washington streets, Athens
How much: Free
More info:

Being backstage at a concert is less like a plush, VIP-only club and more like a war zone.

The main difference? There’s fewer burly men with machine guns walking the perimeter at an outdoor concert.

At least, that’s what Cracker frontman David Lowery is keeping in perspective as he takes the main AthFest stage on Sunday, closing out the Athens music festival with music from one of his two bands.

Cracker caps off three days of live music on two outdoor stages in downtown Athens, along with a special area devoted to kids activities and an artist market. The festival continues after the outdoor stages close with special events at clubs and Cine, the downtown movie house.

Both of Lowery’s two bands — Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven — have a dedicated fan base. But it’s Cracker that’s a little more the "band of the people," he said, versus the white collar, tongue-in-cheek humor of Camper (Among Camper’s hits, the song "Take the Skinheads bowling" received a new following after it was featured in Michael Moore’s "Bowling for Columbine.")

"Cracker’s kind of a band of the people — we can go a lot more places, not only in the United States or in North America, but the world," said Lowery during a phone interview with The Times. "Cracker worked totally fine when we went to Iraq and played for the troops. Camper is definitely a little more esoteric; it’s more of a big-city band, or a slacker town, like Athens."

Camper Van Beethoven formed in the early 1980s, but disbanded about 10 years later when Lowery formed Cracker with two other Camper members, guitarist Johnny Hickman and bassist Davey Faragher. The band hit the mainstream with "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)."

The bands share a love of good ol’ rock ’n’ roll, to the extent that Lowery has been touring with both, playing about 15 shows a year with the bands on one bill. This fall also will be the sixth year of Campout, a festival in California organized by Lowery and a few other band members that also features both bands.

Cracker’s most recent record, "Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey," is what sparked a tour to Iraq in November, performing for troops stationed at remote outposts where most performers refused to travel.

The album’s opening song, "Yalla Yalla (Let’s Go)," was inspired by slang used by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The underground following it received from soldiers made Lowery want to connect with them overseas, and he signed up for a USO tour.

"That’s sort of the first real, proper, like, USO-type-actually-playing-for-the-defense-department kind of thing," he said, citing past performances at naval and air force academies. "This was the first time we put on the Kevlar, put on the helmet, get on the helicopter and go.

"This is not Bob Hope USO, like where everybody is in their nice uniform and they’re sitting in some amphitheater somewhere."

Instead, the four bandmembers and one crewmember were shuttled to outposts to play for any number of soldiers — the actual numbers were classified, but it was usually about 100 or so, or smaller groups.

"They asked us to go there and go out to the bases and play with this super stripped-down kind of rig," Lowery said. "It was helicopters and armored personnel carriers. We stayed on the big bases and played on the big bases, which sometimes the soldiers will call the Walmart bases."

There were about a dozen Airborne Division soldiers from Fort Bragg escorting them from base to base, and they all kept in touch after the band returned to the states.

This past spring, Lowery said, a few of the Airborne members returned from Iraq. They contacted him when they found out Cracker was playing a St. Patrick’s Day festival in Myrtle Beach, S.C., not far from where they were stationed. Lowery hooked them up with VIP passes.

"So I go over to the VIP tent ... and after a while, the main sergeant says, ‘Hey, man, why aren’t we backstage?’ And I was like, ‘Well, it’s really not glamorous,’" Lowery recalled. "And he said, ‘I really want to see backstage.’ So I said, OK, they’re really well behaved. ... So I take them backstage, and their main staff sergeant looks around and says, ‘Tents? Porta-Potties? Generators? I can get this shit in Iraq.’"

The moral of the story, Lowery said, is rock ’n’ roll is not glamorous — and it’s more like a war zone, especially at an outdoor festival like AthFest, than being in a swanky club.

"Going to a war zone in Iraq was sort of like being backstage at a festival; it was all tents and Porta-Potties, tables, and the security was armed — that’s the main difference."

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