Cracker with Camper Van Beethoven, The Middle East, Cambridge Mass. (January 16, 2010)
It's not often that a musician gets to open for himself, but I've now seen this neat trick played out twice in the last four months. The first was Lou Barlow, doing a solo set prior to playing with Dinosaur Jr. The second was David Lowery, who sang with Camper Van Beethoven prior to Cracker handling closing duties. Expanding on the "Campout" concept when the two bands first got on a bill together in 2005, they took to the road this year and ended a 12-city tour of tag-teaming stages in Cambridge.
Cracker has a much higher profile; if you've forgotten which songs are the band's, spend a few minutes browsing the videos on YouTube and it will all come flooding back to you. As such, it seemed like at least 75 percent of the crowd was there to wait until CVB finished up and Cracker took the stage. Which is a shame, as CVB's genre-hopping earned it an undeserved "quirky" tag, even though they successfully staked out significant gains in the territories of psychedelia, ska, spoof rock, heavy-lidded third-eye groove, and heartfelt alt-Americana. As they came out on stage, Camper had most of their core group save Chris Pedersen (a.k.a. Crispy Derson), who has relocated to Australia. Cracker drummer Frank Funaro ably filled his seat, although I did miss the extremely tight rack tom rolls that Pederson used to do effortlessly.
Instruments in hand, the six musicians launched straight into the hazy cruise down the Nile in a sandstorm of "ZZ Top goes to Egypt." It was clear that the set list would be a treat for hardcore fans. Indeed, I'd not seen them in almost 20 years and the songs selected at the Middle East could not be topped. Jonathan Segel's searing/soaring violin lines ('One Of These Days," "She Divines Water") matched perfectly with Greg Lisher's fretwork, the ear-poppingly dulcet tones of "Sweethearts" and the frantically fingered "Balalaika Gap" being but two examples, and David Immerglück's mandolin was the perfect foil. He played slide, finger-picked, fret-board tapped, power chorded. He's a hugely versatile player who somehow got lost in the dust of time and is sorely underrated and under-appreciated.
Lest you forget that they can also rock, the heavy end of "Waka" and "The Long Plastic Hallway" was firmly anchored by Victor Krummenacher's bass and brought more than a whiff of side project Monks of Doom, a Lowery-less combo that fused the heavy riffs of Zeppelin and the fractured world view of lost travelers Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett. Toward the end of their (pre-formation) run, CVB managed to write some songs that truly were top-notch exercises of peering into cramped, personal spaces, vignettes of the dark edges of the human experience. Luckily, we got to hear a few of these ("Flowers," "All Her Favorite Fruit," "Tania") before they veered back over to the humorous side of their sound, with some targeted jabs at punk rock. "Club Med Sucks" tells the story of a bored, privileged teen who hates the posh holiday his parents took him on, lamenting just to play lacrosse as played to the forbidden hardcore beat. A laconic cover of "White Riot" segued perfectly to their skewed beach front hoe-down of Black Flag's "Wasted." Perfect.
After a short break, David Lowery came back for another round of singing (having saved a bit of gas in the tank due to the instrumental-heavy songs of Camper), with guitarist Johnny Hickman flanking his right side and Sal Maida playing bass to the left. Lowery was a lot more talkative during this set, with long spiels about the Germans' lack of humor, an old lady clamoring to hear "the song about the whore" during an acoustic gig ('Euro Trash Girl" was her intended target), and relaying stories about their recent trip over to play for U.S. troops stationed in Iraq.
Cracker doesn't attempt to do the genre-hopping zig zags of CVB, instead focusing on some rather firmly constructed traditional songwriting, with Hickman's tightly spooled guitar playing splashed across and on top of it. He alternately blinded the crowd with big licks from his intricately inlaid solid body Les Paul, and then flashes of his toothy smile. They are good at what they do, but personally I prefer the wider and wilder range of Camper.
Often the ending song isn't the big payoff it should be, but that wasn't the case here. With all but Sal Maida on stage, the two bands fused for an incredible version of Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive," with intro and outro of "Careful With That Axe, Eugene." I will definitely be checking Archive.org for a recording...
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