David Lowery, one of the most knowing of rock’s songwriters, brings together his two bands (Camper van Beethoven and Cracker) to create a surreal yet logical overview of his career. It’s a move that should bring delight to the Beethoven camp, seeing the band once again weave odd Middle Eastern tapestries out of rock material, a distant cry from Cracker’s straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll.
For this tour, which has started with three dates in Southern California and a gig in Arizona before heading east, Lowery’s Cracker includes Camper’s Victor Krummenacher on bass instead of Bob Rupe and Greg Lisher on keyboards and accordion, easing the transition between Camper and Cracker material. Wisely, the two-hour show is a mixture of both bands’ work, which limns the extent to which Lowery has engaged a foil in both settings.
Jonathan Segel’s masterful violin work, a trademark of the Camper sound, is still blissed out; Johnny Hickman, the guitarist who created Cracker with Lowery in 1991, has a role that brings him closer and closer to being the leading man. His solos, all emanating from the same Gibson Les Paul that he’s been playing for years, are seeing a far-forward prominence, a suggestion that Cracker’s instrumental prowess can be on par with Camper.
Early in the set, Cracker romped through “Seven Days,” one of the highlights of their 1998 disc “Gentleman’s Blues,” and the unit brought out the crackling “Exile on Main Street” influences of jagged guitar figures, keyboard fills and a half-drunk vocal. The tune’s a solid example of Cracker’s ability to get tough without the turn of a phrase or a jokey chorus, a potent sign of Cracker’s evolution over four albums.
Not that the humorous tunes have lost their edge or Lowery and band have grown weary of performing them. Au contraire: “Euro-Trash Girl,” “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and “Low” were among the most powerful perfs in the two-hour show. And when Cracker ventures into country ditties, ballads and trucker tales, they manage to subtly juxtapose images of hippie-health and blue-collar vices; both bands, though, can get by on a most curious marriage of Randy Newman and the Pogues. Fortunately, it’s only one aspect of each group.
This Camper Van Beethoven tour is a prelude to a retrospective disc, “Garage D’Or,” being released by Virgin on March 14. One of the three new tracks, “Be My Love,” will be worked at radio and, as the first encore in Tuesday’s show, it was delivered with a vulnerable wistfulness that seems to indicate Lowery is picking up pointers from the acts he has been producing (Counting Crows, Joan Osborne).
The disc won’t include tracks from Camper’s two Virgin discs (“Key Lime Pie” and the spectacular “Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart”). Camper deserves an overview on its own, yet it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when over-the-top tunes such as “Let’s Take the Skinheads Bowling” gave way to the sublime. “Real Camper fans know this one,” Hickman said as they launched into the instrumental “ZZ Top Goes to Egypt” from 1986’s “Camper Van Beethoven II & III.” Sadly, so much of the CVB oeuvre remains that obscure.
And the experience of hearing Camper cover an example of 1970s excess rock hasn’t been the same since they recorded Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” Tuesday, “Matchstick Men” was a nearly a centerpiece of the set rather than a nod and a wink to the music Camper couldn’t help but like despite being in a position to rebel against it. It was always part of the Camper charm that they played music they love, whether it be hardcore punk, a Ringo Starr tune or more its own Middle Eastern hybrids.
The trio of Campers rounding out this project — Segel, Krummenacher and Lisher — open the evening with a 40-minute set of slightly-better-than-limp folk rock. In the way in which the Byrds adapted qualities of Bob Dylan’s tunes as they struck out on their own as songwriters, so too have the former Campers, never reaching too deep into the bag of songwriting tricks. They have continued to record for the indies Magnetic and Pitch-a-Tent, the label on which CVB debuted, under their own names and as Hieronymus Firebrain and Monks of Doom. Certainly accessible and melodic, the music lacks the overall spark that distinguished Camper Van Beethoven.