The last time these two bands, with their overlapping personnel, appeared together in the Twin Cities was approximately 13 months earlier, when the Camper/Cracker crew rocked a packed house at the Fine Line Music Café in downtown Minneapolis. Given their affinity for that particular venue (Cracker’s prior two shows were also held there), it seemed out of place to have the bands performing in this setting: a comfortable, new – but sterile – theater, with the garish banners for the radio station sponsor serving as the only backdrop. Ignoring their surroundings, and the separation between them and the audience (until the end of Cracker’s set), the bands both delivered solid performances, with Camper showcasing its new album, “La Costa Perdida,” and Cracker highlighting old favorites.
Following a brief opening set by Honeydog-in-chief, Adam Levy, Camper took the stage to the instrumental overture, “Waka,” before firing up their cover of “Pictures Of Matchstick Men.” “Pictures” had been a # 1 college radio hit for the band in the mid-80’s, with multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel’s soaring violin work replacing the wah-wah guitar of The Status Quo’s original. Segel would continue to impress all night, switching back and forth between violin and Stratocaster, sometimes in mid-song.
Frontman David Lowery noted that this year marked the 30th anniversary of Camper Van Beethoven (albeit, with a lengthy hiatus for most of the 90’s), and he promised that they would “try to make a new album more often than every eight years.” The new songs came off well in concert, including the first single from “La Costa Perdida,” “Northern California Girls,” with Lowery on acoustic guitar, pleading with the expatriate NoCal women to come home: “Don’t you miss the ocean? / Don’t you miss the weather?” he implored. “Summer Days,” featured intricate guitar and violin interplay between Segel and lead guitarist Greg Lisher, while “Too High For The Love-In,” had the sort of twisted, free-association lyrics for which the Campers are well known. With a perfectly straight face, however, David Lowery remarked at the end of “Too High” that it was based on a true story, involving Jonathan’s wife being bit by a viper while traveling in Sweden. Not sure how that happens but . . . O . . .K.
It’s pretty hard to top “Take The Skinheads Bowling” for off-kilter, free-associating lyrics. Sandwiched between the country-flavored “Sad Lovers Waltz” and the dark, dissonant, menacing “You Got To Roll,” from the new album, “Skinheads” was delivered forcefully, but without a trace of irony. Regardless, it was the crowd-pleasing high point of the set, with most of the audience joining in the singalong chorus.
After a brief intemission, Cracker took the stage for its 70-minute set. Despite sharing a couple of band members with Camper (David Lowery and drummer Frank Funaro), Cracker is not a side project or spinoff of Camper. It was formed in the early 90’s, after the Campers parted ways for most of the decade, and the band has produced its own substantial body of work. Cracker’s sound is less lush than Camper’s, as befits a smaller, four-piece unit, and less eclectic, opting for more straightforward rock/alt-country arrangements rather than the polyglot of influences present in Camper’s oeuvre, What they share, besides Lowery and Funaro, is a penchant for the left-of-center lyric. Not having a new album to promote, the Cracker set was full of old favorites, including its own cult classic, “Euro-Trash Girl.”
Regrettably, some sound problems cropped up from time to time during Cracker’s set. Johnnie Hickman’s Les Paul sounded muddy and lost in the mix on the opening “Been Around The World.” The sound evened out for “Low,” a mid-tempo rocker, and was stable for “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now),” a fast-paced song with the acerbic chorus: “Cause what the world needs now / is another folk singer / like I need a hole in my head.” Tell us what you really think about folk singers, David!
The honky-tonk “Lonesome Johnny Blues,” with its “Folsom Prison Blues” tempo, gave way to the less frantic but still forceful pace of “Hey Bret (you know what time it is),” from the 2009 “Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey” album, the band’s most recent studio effort. Unfortunately, once again the sound mix seemed to falter, with Hickman’s solos being amped too low to showcase his formidable chops.
From the country-flavored “Mr. Wrong,” (“Don’t want to hear about Mr. Right / ‘Cause he’s out of town tonight / Baby come and spend some time with Mr. Wrong”); through the earnest love song “Guarded By Monkeys” (“You are so beautiful / You should be guarded by monkeys”); and the escapist/survivalist plea “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me,” (“(Now picture this) I’m shopping in town / For our homemade Agrarian fortress / You’re texting: Corian, granite or tile kitchenette in the gun nest?”), the warped and twisted lyrics kept coming hard and fast. To this point, the crowd was engaged but somewhat reserved, until Hickman began the extended solo to introduce “Euro-Trash Girl.” At that point, a fearless fan near the front got up out of his seat and walked to the front of the stage, inspiring a whole horde of folks to stream down to join him, singing and swaying to the chorus of this fan favorite. There they stayed, through the closing “Seven Days,” “Get Off This,” “One Fine Day,” and “Gimme One More Chance.”
The encore was a nifty cover of a lesser-known Dylan tune, “The Man In Me,” with Johnnie Hickman handling the vocals as well as some terrific solos. Despite the occasional sound issues during Cracker’s set, it was an evening well-spent, in the company of a couple of truly creative – if slightly askew – bands. It is ironic that Camper’s first hit was a cover of a song by a band called The Status Quo, since both Camper and Cracker are quite far removed from the status quo. We should be grateful that there are still independent spirits like this at work out there, challenging our expectations and keeping us on our toes. What the world needs now are more fearless bands like these two.