In which our correspondent reaffirms his devotion to the former and pledges his allegiance to the latter over the course of a steamy, revelatory evening in Phoenix.
BY ROBERT DEAN LURIE
It seems to me that there are just two types of rock bands. There are those like the Ramones or AC/DC who really dig in and focus on refining a particular sound; if they do shift stylistically, the changes are gradual. Then there are those rarer bands who take up the challenge laid down by the Beatles on The White Album and attempt to canvass as many styles as possible.
From atechnical standpoint at least, David Lowery doesn’t initially give the impression of a songwriter of enormous range: he tends to favor straightforward, open chords—the type you might hear from a beginner guitarist sitting beside a campfire. Left to his own devices, he’s a musically direct pop-rock songwriter at heart, albeit one with a skewed lyrical sensibility. Yet Lowery currently fronts two very different bands: Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven, the former a solid “cultivating signature sound”-type band, the latter one of the most expansive and eclectic American bands currently working.
These groups could not bemore dissimilar—a surprising fact given that the touring iterations of Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker share three members: Lowery, bassist Victor Krummenacher, and drummer Frank Funaro. With such an overlap in personnel, it was perhaps inevitable that the two bands would consolidate their resources (and fanbases) and tour together, which they have now done on and off for several years. These dual-headlining shows can be a real treat for audiences: over the course of three hours and change, concertgoers get to hear a nearly comprehensive survey of what rock and roll can offer, punctuated throughout by Lowery’s oddly endearing bellows and rasps. The shows fulfil that added purpose of fanbase cross-pollination, exposing the partisans of the more mainstream Cracker to Lowery’s more experimental band, while simultaneously winning over some of CVB’s more intransigent fans (such as myself) to the incendiary brilliance of Cracker’s live performances.
So yes, the joint-tour idea makes a lot of sense. It’s unique and hopefully financially worthwhile for all involved. Yet I’ve often wondered about the toll these shows must take on the singer. Sure, Bruce Springsteen also does concerts of this length (or longer), but the sheer stylistic range of Lowery’s two bands—not to mention the verbosity of many of his songs—imposes unique challenges in terms of concentration, pacing, and stamina. While interviewing him several months ago for an earlier Blurt piece I got the chance to ask him about this. Specifically, I wanted to know if he ever found himself at the end of the first band’s set thinking, Oh crap, I’ve got to come back on and do another one of these.
“Well,” he said, “Cracker is a much more popular band, so the crowd is at its fullest peak when I’m out with Cracker and that gives a boost. The length of the performance doesn’t faze me all that much physically; it’s sort of exhilarating and my role in both of those bands is very different. I’m very much singer and leader in Cracker: I do something, Johnny plays guitar, and it’s just back and forth between the two of us like that all night. Camper Van Beethoven is much more complex. There’s lots of long instrumental passages where I’m not really the focus, and there are also some completely instrumental songs. So I don’t actually sing that much with them. I don’t spend as much time being the focus.
“It’s an oversimplification, but in a way the Camper set’s a little bit more about the brain, a little bit more about the head and sort of focusing on having to play this or that part, and Cracker’s a little bit more about the raw energy of the heart and the soul. So they’re complementary in most ways. I think the only real fatigue I ever feel is with my hearing. I don’t know if my ears are set up to play for three hours on a rock stage.Even if we’re not loud, after three hours my ears are like help! Help!”
One thing he didn’t mention in that conversation was the challenge that might be posed if he were nursing a cold—which seemed to be the case during the July 21 dual-band show at the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix. Camper Van Beethoven played first, beginning their set with “Too High for the Love-in,” a song off their excellent new album La Costa Perdida. From the outset, Lowery was really struggling with the high notes; at first he tried to just bludgeon his way through, but his voice just collapsed back onto itself. During “Pictures of Matchstick Men,” the Status Quo cover that is Camper’s lone mainstream hit, Lowery finally reached a fragile detente with his rebelling vocal chords and remained in that state for rest of the set.
That said, the vocal issues didn’t really impact the overall performance. Camper Van Beethoven, in this version at least, is essentially a creative three-way between Lowery, multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segal, and guitarist Greg Lisher. When one is suffering, the other two are fully capable of carrying the show. And on this evening, apart from the patchy vocals, the band did not appear to slip up even once. Segal, his virtuosity and performer’s instinct well on display, easily stepped up to his duties as provisional frontman, while Lisher was a quiet wonder, coaxing off-kilter tapestries of sound out of his instrument.The set was well-balanced, neatly slotting the newer material alongside cult favorites like “Eye of Fatima” and “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” The band also rolled out several of the gypsy-ska instrumentals that were so prominent on the first three CVB albums.
In his between-songs commentary, Lowery repeatedly made the point that Camper Van Beethoven is a prog-rock band at heart, and that each of the new songs is “its own rock opera.” This fell on mostly uncomprehending ears, yet he was absolutely right in asserting that progressive rock (or, if you prefer, “art rock”) is the group’s true heritage. [Correct. I have live tapes and even a live video tape of the band from around 1985 in which one of the sets’ centrepieces is a sprawling version of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive.” —Prog. Ed.] Sure, the band has punked it up and given it a tasteful injection of Americana, but in unguarded moments these guys will admit to being, first and foremost, massive fans of early Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and Genesis, along with any number of more obscure artists such as Kaleidoscope and Fred Frith. They’re Deadheads too. This strident unfashionability set them well apart from their peers in the American post-punk scene back in the early ‘80s and gave them their edge. And they maintain that edge today. I mean, who else is referencing Kaleidoscope right now?
Prior to returning to the stage with Cracker, Lowery must have downed some lemon tea or whiskey and honey, because his voice had significantly stabilized for the second set. If the Camper Van Beethoven section of the show was a confirmation for me of that band’s greatness, the Cracker set was a revelation. The albums I’d heard—primarily the debut and Kerosene Hat—gave me little indication of just how amazing these guys would be live. A big key to their stage presence was guitarist and co-founder Johnny Hickman, who not only proved himself a shredder extraordinaire but also a born entertainer—a more natural showman than the somewhat withdrawn Lowery. He constantly made eye contact with various people in the audience and grinned as he peeled off hot lick after hot lick.
The setlist encompassed the highlights of Cracker’s career, featuring hits major and minor (“Low” and “Euro-Trash Girl”) alongside a plethora of deep cuts and spirited covers (Dylan’s “The Man in Me” and the Grateful Dead’s “Loser.”) I came away from the performance realizing I had been deeply mistaken about Cracker—that they are, in fact, a sincere and sophisticated band, every bit as great, in their own way, as Camper Van Beethoven. I resolved to look deeper into their catalog and also to re-listen to the work I had previously written off. There were surely other partisans in the audience—from both camps—undergoing similar reappraisals.
I don’t believe a single person left the Crescent disappointed. It was a great show by two great bands who continue to look forward—even when looking back. Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker will, of course, continue to play together.
Their next joint outing will be the 9th Annual Cracker Camper Van Beethoven Campout, occurring Sep. 12-14 in Pioneertown, CA. In addition to full sets by the two primary bands, the itinerary features various side projects and solo performances by members of the extended Cracker/CVB family. For my money, I’d pick this intimate event over any of those commercialized outdoor festivals hands-down. Why go to Woodstock when you could go on a camping trip with the Beatles?
[Photo Credit of Cracker & CVB by Danny Clinch; photo of David Lowery by Jason Thrasher]