Camper Van Beethoven’s Silver Anniversary, And “New Roman Times” Revisited

Last night, Camper Van Beethoven played the State Theater in suburban Washington as part of their 25th Anniversary Tour.  They were great.  David Lowery, the world’s most unassuming rock band frontman (at least with CVB; in Cracker’s glory days he could, on occasion, strut maybe five feet to the right and left) now looks like a suburban Republican dad, or at least like PJ O’Rourke.  Jonathan Segal was in especially fine form on fiddle.  Greg Lisher did his best deadpan Jimmy Page impression.  Victor Krummenacher was, as always, amazing on bass.  And Frank Funaro — was that Frank on the skins when they played the 930 Club in, oh, 2005? — earnestly walloped the drums in rhythmic patterns ranging from gypsy ska to punk from the Steppes: no easy fete.

People tend either to adore CVB or not take them seriously.  And yes, going from a four-chord rock song to some weird take-out on klezmer music makes one, on occasion, wonder if they missed their calling as the world’s greatest hippy bar mitzvah band.  I actually think their over-the-top eclecticism, their virtuosity, the way an ordinary verse-chorus-bridge-verse song can suddenly effloresce into a moment of aching beauty means these guys are serious artists who ought to be reckoned with.  

And I was thinking — thinking as they played “Take The Skinheads Bowling” and “Eye of Fatima” and other alternative hits, high on irony, musical jokes — that it says something that Camper Van Beethoven was the only band in existence (okay, maybe Steve Earle) that genuinely took on the Bush Administration and the Iraq War with anything that approached artistry and depth, without posing or self-congratulations (Dixie Chicks), without just reverting to use of the old ’60s bludgeon- form (Neil Young, and a slew of others.)

New Roman Times came out in 2004, just a year into the War in Iraq.  On examination, it’s not merely the best thing they’ve ever done in their quarter-century existence.  It is one of the few works of art focusing on America in this wretched period we’re about to leave behind, that I believe will stand the test of time.  It’s not a screed.  It’s a deeply moving album with great music and a funny concept/story that, even though it kind of falls apart, is an unheralded work of comic brilliance.    (In 2004, the world was not quite ready for a rock concept album that declared the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy a tragicomedy.)

A young man joins the military (“51-7”), goes off to Iraq (“Might Makes Right”), becomes disillusioned upon his return to Austin (“New Roman Times”), and becomes a stoner participant in a Blackwater-like “security firm” (“The Long Plastic Hallway,” “I Am Talking To This Flower.”)  Along the way, there are detours into telling the Unibomber story (“Militia Song”), and of course it winds up with a classic CVB anthem (“Hippie Chix”), with its by-now famous chorus — available on bumper stickers — of “I would die for hippie chix.”  But years from now, when we think about what a long, awful trip the last eight years have been, while some people will put on a Michael Moore film fest, and no doubt other, more serious folks will read brilliant works of journalism like Dexter Filkins’ “The Forever War” and Jane Mayer’s “The Dark Side,” I know I’ll be tapping my feet to CVB, just like I did last night, appreciating these guys for what they are: not just rock music’s brilliant jesters, but a band that is fine, and frickin’ wonderful, and while they’re at it, deep.

One Response to “Camper Van Beethoven’s Silver Anniversary, And “New Roman Times” Revisited”

  1. Wow, Camper Van Beethoven! I haven’t listened to them in years – since my college days when my roommate was into them.

    You should publish a list of concerts you are attending. You find some great ones and I seem to miss out! Oh well.

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