Concert Review: Cracker / Camper Van Beethoven

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Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven are staging an early evening show for those in the twilight of their concert-going years, the two David Lowery-led bands understanding the realities facing their demographic. As the clock strikes 7pm, a 3/4 full 9:30 Club is host to a boisterous crowd that has traversed the frigid mist to see a prominent critic of the digital music model do what he does best: play music. I’m a bit less enthused, having discovered upon arrival that photos are not in the cards due to a battery malfunction.

The five-piece takes the stage with the NFL playoffs in situ, a violin providing the most salient distinction between Camper Van Beethoven and the evening’s headliner. An instrumental intro helps calm me down…they’re tight.

I zone out a bit as Lowery sings about needing anti-venom and a sandwich (“Too High For the Love-In”). I hope he isn’t speaking to me, personally; he seems fine, and no one else leaps to assist, either. It’s a straight-ahead set, no chit chat and not a lot of kinetic energy or joy. Those on stage seem intently focused upon their musicianship, and that part is totally locked in. The audience is a bit more enthused, bringing their own energy and egging the band along. Touchdown, Saints. Gentlemen…there’s a game in Seattle.

The power ballad “Northern California Girls” improbably raises the temperature, enhanced by orange and blue lights with an assist from the disco ball. My head is back in it and a sing-a-long ensues courtesy of the Wilco-meets-weed track from their 2013 release, La Costa Perida. And…the Saints got the onside kick??? Now it’s really a game. However, something less memorable follows for both Saints fans and CVB fans: the nascent comeback stalls and the band’s follow-up elicits nothing more than polite, wine-drinking, cheese-eating amphitheater crowd applause.

CVB has quite a few songs in three, seafaring songs that rock and sway and lilt into the club’s humid air. They’re pleasant, inciting head bobbing and toe tapping. Nothing is too high, nothing too low, it’s all well and good if not particularly memorable. And then they cover The Clash’s “White Riot” and it’s instantly and unmistakably awesome. And then Black Flag’s “I Was So Wasted.” Where did that come from? Now we’re getting somewhere; they just buzzed the room like Maverick zooming by the tower in his F-14 Tomcat.

They reach back to 1986 (Guess when “Top Gun” was released?) and pull out the 20th track from their self-titled album, continuing the punk vibe with “Shut Us Down,” which, clearly qualifies as a deep cut. A gypsy punk instrumental follows, taking us into both set closer and their most popular track, “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” They’ve definitely elevated their game for the last part of the set, aware of the role of an opening band while conserving energy before some of the band must return for the headliner set.


At the appointed hour, Cracker doesn’t take the stage, just David Lowery. He starts with “Drifting Down the Coast,” also the name of the tour, his banjo bridging the musical divide between the two acts. Johnny Hickman joins him on stage, the duo dueling on “Hey Bret” with an acoustic guitar & Gibson Les Paul with additional color provided by a harmonica.

The full foursome is finally on stage for their third number, bassist and drummer re-appearing after their first performance. They pull out a song called “Friends” that they’ve performed with their friend, Patterson Hood. Hickman’s incredibly resonant vocals join Lowery’s, owning the moment with declarative strength. And what better way to follow-up a song about friendship than with a cover (“Loser”) of the band (The Grateful Dead) that probably inspired more buddy road trips than any other?

Which, is among those things you can only do when you’re young. And “Low” is one of those anthems of our youth that rises to the top, resurrecting times and places and people and feelings. The trip down memory lane is greeted by wild cheers, even from those who didn’t smoke. It plods a bit, but the crowd doesn’t care. The sound feels a bit sparse, like something is missing, but that could be a projection of this moment vis–à–vis the ones the song pulls from the distant past.

“The Good Life” takes things in a different direction, featuring what sounds like The Cure‘s guitar work, in that tonal range and with notes counting upwards into cacophony. It’s sort of a departure within the set, even though it certainly possesses the same alt-rock vibe in most respects. It’s one that releases a bit more movement amongst the partisans, who then reach up into frenzied heights when they follow-up with “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now).” This, unequivocally, is just a kick ass rock song. It has what we know now as Father John Misty‘s mirth and self-awareness combined with the early roots rock sensibility of The Tragically Hip.

They keep the cuteness going, inducing smiles with the whimsical lyrics (“I’m the king of the world / I’m a genius of useless stuff“) and power pop of “Useless Stuff.” But they’re not here for whimsy, and they push forward into a trio of tracks that emphasize their abilities with power chords and blues riffs, ripping as hard as they can and inducing a bit of sweat down on the floor as the rock flows like lava.

Normally, a band wouldn’t choose to dial it back at this point, a point where the end of the set is in sight, but a band can get away with it if they have tracks like “Euro Trash Girl.” Their fans keep rollicking along, soccer dads smiling and singing along with a familiar favorite. That’s…entertainment.

The easy intro of “Been Around the World” gives everyone a breather; we’re not talking about twenty-something athletes, here. It builds into a great guitar solo that almost feels fit for a Chris Isaak show. Perhaps that’s the NorCal influence.

There’s no breather in the hard rocking “Gimme One More Chance,” a track that highlights the lack of loin movement present in a lot of today’s popular music. “Where have you been lately?” The song’s lyrics serve as a metaphor for rock itself. Hickman shreds his guitar solo, strutting around with a shit-eating grin and a strong sense of pride, one no doubt enhanced as he looks out again to the lean, leggy brunette who may or not be his wife.

Their break is a brief one — almost no one here is young and there’s another show at 9:30 Club tonight. The encore pulls out the alt-country heartfelt lament of Dwight Yoakum‘s “Buenas Noches From a Lonely Room,” which sparkles like the vixen in the red dress that seemingly inspired the song. A Lowery-led band conference leads to what seems to be an unplanned second song, the aptly named “Everybody Gets One for Free.” And so we do, enjoying the free bonus rock and yet another riff-tastic guitar solo. Cymbals crash and toms are treated like red-headed stepchildren. The propellant bass line thunders through the room during the extended bluesy jam. Vocals build from smoldering embers to aggravated arson. They’re seasoned veterans, and damned if they’re gonna go out on a ballad.

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Behrnsie has a love for music that dare not speak its name. He attends many shows and can often be found counting out the beats for no discernible reason. He played alto saxophone in his middle school jazz band, where he was best known for infuriating his instructor when it was revealed that he played everything by ear, and could not in fact read music. He takes great pride that this is the same talent/affliction that got Tori Amos kicked out of the Peabody Academy. He does not live in his parents’ basement….except during the holidays.