Few artists can claim they are part of one successful band, but David Lowery can cite two – Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven (and both active) as the very eccentric home to his hybrid musical compositions that span country, rock, ska and alternative music (with a little folk thrown in for good measure).
And now, Lowery continues the tradition of touring with both bands simultaneously for a brief little end of the year tour.
Things kicked off on Tuesday night in Solana Beach, CA at the Belly Up as Lowery’s Camper Van Beethoven served as opening act (they also have a new disc due out in 2012). What started in the 1980s as a very strange alternative band with the signature hit “Take the Skinheads Bowling” evolved over time to incorporate a wide range of styles and strangely addictive jams that featured not only guitars, but also the amazing violin playing of Jonathan Segel.
As the band segued from indie status to major label, the songs got more polished, and a bit more abstract all at the same time.
The nearly one-hour plus performance pulled from all of the band’s numerous releases and was split into three different parts. The first consisted of many tracks from their two major label releases MY BELOVED REVOLUTIONARY SWEETHEART and KEY LIME PIE. It kicked off with a great performance of “All Her Favorite Fruit” and also featured “Eye of Fatima.”
After a handful of songs with this configuration, Segel sat down his violin and picked up the guitar showing off his virtuoso strength with that instrument as well. Lowery announced they were going to play a new song and carried on with a more guitar centric set.
The last half had Segel flipping back to violin as the band put on their ska hat and dug deep into their jamming roots.
The sound quality at Belly Up was impeccable and it’s great to see the band which also includes lead guitarist Greg Lisher, bassist Krummenacher and drummer Frank Funaro (who also played with Cracker) really work the crowd up with their intense playing. They sounded phenomenal. Their ability to segue from one song style after another was a testament to the years they’ve played together on and off – and also showed the power of the music that, like Cracker, still endures years later.
One of the strengths of the band is also Lowery’s low-key demeanor on stage – and his willingness to step into the background as he and the rest of group kicks into the many jams that took place on stage during the various Camper Van instrumentals they played.
And that’s the testament of a great band. They existed in between the lines of the 1980s alternative music scene, yet their music doesn’t feel dated or retro – and in fact sounds as original and unique as it did the day it was recorded. I’d even dare say the band has gotten better with age. They’re tighter, stronger and more polished. Yet, the music world still hasn’t caught up with them. They’re still ahead of the curve.
When Camper Van broke up after the second major label effort KEY LIME PIE, the members split into different factions and directions with Lowery forming Cracker which evolved into an alternative rock band with frequent country flourishes.
Cracker proclaimed with their first single “Teen Angst” – “what the world needs now/is another folk singer/like I need a whole in my head” as if Lowery was saying he was moving past Camper Van’s eclectic folk leanings and trying something different.
Major success found Cracker, but that didn’t stop the eclecticism and that was evidenced in the nearly 90 minute set the band performed charging through 17 songs spanning their entire catalog.
The night kicked off with the band in country mode (Lowery even wore a country and western shirt) cranking out their great bar band song “Friends” from their 2009 album SUNRISE IN THE LAND OF MILK AND HONEY. It also featured a great back and forth vocals with lead guitarist Johnny Hickman.
Lowery continued in this vein with underrated “The Golden Age” and a great countrified version of “Mr. Wrong.”
This tone shifted soon after that – much like Camper Van – by corralling the songs into similarly themed sections.
“Euro Trash Girl” wound the crowd up properly with their nearly 8 minute epic about searching for an “angel in black” across a surreal adventure throughout Europe. It’s a great song (with the occasional ironic lyric) and it sounded phenomenal especially when the crowd started singing along with the chorus. To think, this song was originally released as B-side on an E.P. before it was given a formal place on their second disc “Kerosene Hat.”
“Happy Birthday” off their debut album was given a nice tweak and a little bit more twang, while “Merry Christmas Emily” was appropriate considering the holidays have just ended.
The hits were rolled out toward the latter part of the night with “Teen Angst” (What the World Needs Now)” revving things up. Damn this song still sounds good. They also rammed into “Don’t F**k Me Up With Peace and Love” with ferocity before concluding with their biggest hit to date “Low” that was one of the many highlights of the night.
Other nice surprises included the great “Get off This” and the incredible jam of “Gimme One More Chance” off their GREENLAND disc.
The encore included “Waiting For You Girl” and wrapped things up with the band’s awesome cover of the Flamin’ Groovies 1980s power pop hit “Shake Some Action” featuring Hickman on vocals. If Lowery decides he wants to forsake folk, country, ska, rock – the band might have a gig as a pretty kick-ass power pop band as well.
Cracker sounds incredibly rich with Hickman’s outstanding guitar playing. Like Mike Campbell of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Hickman is a terribly underrated guitarist. He shines on every song and brings the kind of spit and polish that allows Cracker to morph from rock, country and alterna-pop all within a fifteen-minute span.
This guy is the real deal and like Lowery (and his incredibly eclectic songs), deserving of more praise in rock circles.
Sal Maida also gives the band a nice chunky bass sound and really rocked things out throughout, though it was “Gimme One More Chance” where he really got to show off his stuff as the band got into a extended groove. Funaro also proves he can roll with unique styles of both bands and not miss a beat.
Lowery’s lyrics, both as part of Camper Van and Cracker have also had a cheeky tone to them at times, and that expert turn of the phrase has allowed these songs to continue to flourish, grow and become more appreciated over time.
With seven official studio albums under their belt, they have a rich catalog of songs to choose from, and they really only scratched the surface during this performance. They could have played another hour’s worth of songs, and it would not have been just as invigorating.
The unique configuration of band members certainly allows both Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven to exist in the same stratosphere on the same night without seeming like more of the same.
I’ve been a long time Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven fan, but have, surprisingly, never seen them live. Getting the opportunity to experience both in one night at the same venue was a rare treat – and reminded me why I loved their music so much. With four decades and two bands, Lowery has proven why creating music for yourself and not for the current trends can create a long-lasting embarrassment of riches of songs that can be mixed and matched and still provide a potent concert for fans and new converts.
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Article: Concert Review of Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven at the Belly Up in Solana Beach, CA