On Seeing Camper Van Beethoven And Cracker On The Same Night

Having Camper Van Beethoven open for Cracker would send Darwin into a tizzy, for they reverse all theories of evolution.  Bands of virtuosi playing wildly inventive sets are not supposed to evolve, as David Lowery did in the early ’90s when he left Camper and formed Cracker, into straight-ahead roots rock.  Okay, maybe their trajectory followed the path of the 1970s when punk rock was the palette cleanser that saved the meal.  And yeah, we’ve been fans of both bands since their founding, so it’s not like the effect of seeing them back-to-back should have been a surprise.  But to see Cracker follow Camper, as they did last night at the State Theater, is to understand just how magnificent both bands are, and what a deceptive and underrated genius Lowery is.

If Camper Van Beethoven can be said to combine music from a gypsy wedding with the dynamics of a ska hoedown, followed by an astral launch worthy of Pink Floyd, all in the same song, then Cracker should be viewed as a band that grafted Southern rock and country onto a frame stretched by punk rock and the Rolling Stones.  Let’s just look at the bands they covered last night to get a sense of Lowery’s catholic tastes: Status Quo and the Clash (Camper), the Grateful Dead, Flamin’ Groovies, and Dwight Yoakum (Cracker).  Oh, and of course the Clash song Camper played, “White Riot,” was played as a country’n’western, just to further confound the distinctions between the two.

If Luna had ever toured with Galaxie 500, Dean Wareham fronting both bands seriatem, you’d see the same dynamic — a man dancing happily with both his first and second wives.  Last night Camper was just a wee bit off due to Victor Krummenacher being (temporarily) absent from bass chores, with David Immergluck filling in admirably, if not perfectly.  There was an opportunity cost to the deletion of Immergluck softening the sound with his pedal steel and other instruments.  Still, on songs like “All Her Favorite Fruit,” the band raised the theater’s roof.

Interestingly, Lowery came out for the Cracker set playing acoustic guitar for the first half-dozen songs, including staples like “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now).” After the complexity and swirling leads of Greg Lisher and Jonathan Segal trading off guitar and fiddle during Camper’s set, Lowery playing acoustic seemed to calm things down even as Johnny Hickman revved things up.  Some years ago, Greil Marcus disgraced himself by complaining, in his review of Sticky Fingers, that the acoustic guitar strummed in “Brown Sugar” undermined the song, when history has shown that it actually made the song.  And so it was last night: Lowery’s playing acoustic let the straight-ahead dynamic of Johnny Hickman’s clean Les Paul lines anchor things in a manner both soothing and thrilling, like stepping on the gas of a 1969 Firebird and feeling the engine roar.

Earlier this year, when La Costa Perdida came out, Camper received some Pitchfork love, unexpectedly included in the ranks of the cool.  It is, in our opinion, a bit of a letdown after the magnificent New Roman Times from 2004, which was the single best takedown of the Bush years, an album that had the conceptual balls to render the Iraq war as rock opera tragedy and farce.  Still, we’re glad to see Lowery and Camper get their due.  That Cracker, which after all once had the Pixies’ Dave Lovering on drums — can’t get cooler than that — is not ranked higher than a guilty pleasure by the rock-crit crowd is a bit of a disgrace, like someone not groking Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Are they at that level as an American rock’n’roll exemplar?  Well, they don’t have the hits to equal what Fogerty did, but after seeing Cracker again last night?  Yes, yes they are.

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