For those of you who didn’t make it to Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker’s 15th and final annual Pioneertown Campout last summer, I have good news! Both bands will be sharing the bill tomorrow, December 30, 2019 at the Teragram Ballroom, two years after their last L.A. show. This winter they are not touring a specific album, but between the two bands, they have released four albums in the last six years. If recent set lists are any indication, much of the set will be devoted to their popular 80s and 90s songs, with selections from Cracker’s most recent double-album Berkeley to Bakersfield (read our interview here) and Camper Van Beethoven’s last two studio albums. Founder and frontman of the two bands, David Lowery, is currently working on an autobiographical album with one song devoted to each year of his life. He usually throws in one of those. So this show will be like “the many moods of David Lowery.”
In the mid-80s, Camper Van Beethoven took over the “alternative rock” college radio airwaves. Their combination of punk and folk/world music with ironic and anti-establishment lyrics was irresistible. Along with their big hit, “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” popular songs like “The Day that Lassie Went to the Moon,” and their slowed-down version of Black Flag’s “Wasted” were both wry and charming.
There is something about David Lowery’s voice and the trance-like melodies of Camper Van Beethoven that is somehow very comforting, even when singing sad or heavily political lyrics. There was nothing dark about them, making Camper Van Beethoven perfect for taking magic mushrooms. It would be easy to attribute that vibe to their mellow Santa Cruz origins, but in actuality, Camper Van Beethoven originated in the Inland Empire, where Lowery was born and raised.
During the interim between hardcore punk and grunge, they were a prolific band that was already on their third album by the time I saw them live in 1987. By 1989, they had broken up, citing internal conflict (which would actually be a great name for a hardcore band).
In 1991 David Lowery formed a new band, Cracker, with guitarist and childhood friend, Johnny Hickman and promptly relocated to Richmond, Virginia. Like Camper Van Beethoven, they did not fit into any clear-cut genre, but that’s about the only thing the bands shared. Whereas Camper Van Beethoven’s violinist, Jonathan Segel studied Eastern music, Hickman brought a twangy guitar sound that is described in one review by the LA Beat Editor Billy Bennight as bringing “…feelings of lusty devotion to sudsy lager, wild women and brown liquor…”
Cracker is a straightforward stripped-down rock band. There is a bit of Chuck Berry and Buck Owens in the mix. Althought their big radio hit, “Low,” is a love song, his self-mocking “The world needs another folk singer like I need a hole in my head” and “turn on tune in drop out,” which compares the hippie sentiment to a sort of yuppie militia, demonstrate that Lowery’s satirical lyrics remain integral to his songwriting.
So get down to the Teragram Monday! Party early! let the amateurs have the road on New Year’s Eve!