For a band that hasn't released an album in almost six years, Camper Van Beethoven can still draw a crowd. Of course, it didn't hurt that they were opening for Cracker, which does have a new disc----and a healthy fan base of its own. But by the time CVB hit the stage at Cambridge's venerable Middle East Downstairs, the place was packed. If any fans were waiting impatiently for Cracker, they didn't show it.
Camper Van Beethoven opened with Jonathan Segel's sinuous spike-toned fiddle leading the way through the mystic prog rock of "ZZ Top Goes to Egypt" and segueing into the off-kilter indie pop of "Flowers," showing the penchant for genre-blending CVB built its reputation on. And before the set was over, nasty punk and eastern-European flavored folk-rock would be thrown into the mix as well.
Camper Van's eclecticism is grounded by twin poles -- David Lowey's vocals and Segel's violin. Lowery was on from the start, delivering CVB's ironic, slightly skewed lyrics with humor, joy, or simmering anger as the tunes demanded. While Segel handled most of the lead lines, guitarist Greg Lisher occasionally stepped up, as he did on "Flowers" with well-placed, woozy Telecaster fills. Overall, his work was understated, but it served as a critical pivot point. Unfortunately, that couldn't be said for part-time Camper David Immerglück, whose pedal steel was a bit too understated, and whose mando seemed to serve more as a prop than a part of the sonic mix.
Camper Van has never been an explosive band; their intensity is much more restrained. Still, as the set progressed, they stoked the fire. A cover of the bluegrass standard "O Death" locked them into a groove, thanks to heavy bottom contributed by original Camper Victor Krummenacher on bass and newcomer Frank Funaro on drums.
This marked a turning point, a rising that built through a string of fan favorites, from "Sweethearts" (where Lisher cascaded some chimey licks) to "New Roman Times," and Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men." By the time Camper reached "Take the Skinheads Bowling" and "The Day Lassie Went to the Moon," the crowd was ready for a full-throated shout-along. The band peaked out with snarling covers of the Clash's "White Riot" and Black Flag's "Wasted," setting the stage aptly for what was to come.
Since David Lowery fronts both Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker, it might be convenient to look at the bands as two sides of the same coin. But there are significant differences in personnel between them, and by "significant," I mean lead guitarist Johnny Hickman. When Cracker hit the stage after a brief break, the Middle East vibe moved from eclectic indie to rock and roll in about two bars, with Hickman's Les Paul slithering its way into "One Fine Day."
As Cracker moved though a spine-tingling set, Hickman's presence was definitive. He's no technical wizard, and he probably knows it; he lives on taste and tone, and at the Middle East, he delivered both in abundance. Immerglück, who'd been submerged in the Camper Van Beethoven set, stepped up his game (and stepped on his volume pedal) to match Hickman lick for lick. I'd never thought of pedal steel as a rock and roll instrument, but Immerglück literally shredded his way through more than a few tunes, while adding country and blues licks to "Lonesome Johnny Blues" and "Wedding Day," among others.
And then there was David Lowery. Thoroughly comfortable on stage, he led the crowd through a shaggy, good humored intro to "Eurotrash Girl." But that was just a brief break from his otherwise relentless intensity. As the band ripped through hits like "Low" and "Teen Angst" and new tunes from the Sunrise disc, including "Yalla Yalla (Let's Go)" and "Hey Bret, (You Know What Time it Is?)," Lowery was by turns dangerous, disenchanted, smart, sexual, and sarcastic, and he roared with the ferocity of a hurricane. With Lowery at the front end, Cracker is about pinning you to the floor and jamming sound into your ear, and fuck you if you don't like it. Isn't that what a rock show is supposed to be about?