As soon as Camper Van Beethoven played its first note at the Teragram Ballroom on Saturday, an entire roomful of people from three different generations started nodding their heads and grooving as one, and it was a beautiful sight. The alternative college radio darling from the mid-80s has not lost a bit of its charm. The set was a pretty even selection from the band’s repertoire, pleasing fans from all eras.
They opened with “Come Down the Coast” from 2013’s La Costa Perdida. The song is not as well-known as their earlier stuff, but the pretty melody and gentle orchestration made it feel familiar. The next song was immediately recognized and cheered by the audience; their cover of the 60’s-era “Matchstick Men” by Status Quo was a really big song for them.
I was also into “Northern California Girls,” from La Costa Perdida, an album I haven’t listened to very much (clearly not enough). It seems to be the state calling singer David Lowery back home from his newfound Southern life. He changed the first part to “Southern California Girls,” which was nice. I imagine him doing that elsewhere as they tour, “Chi-ca-go Girls,” “Cinn-cin-att-i Girls…”
Multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel was expertly handling vocals, guitar, violin, and organ. At one point he blew everyone away by resting his violin on his forearm and playing both the violin and Hammond organ at once. A pair of cymbals strapped to his knees would not have been out of place.
Segel also came up with the best stage patter of the set, remarking, “It’s nice to be in this ballroom dedicated to one billion grams.”
Lowery had a fast comeback with, “Haven’t you done a billion grams by now?”
After a few lighthearted songs from Vampire Can Mating Oven and Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, the mood got a little more intense with the old lament “Oh Death,” but even though the lyrics are dark, it still has an easy melody. It’s the ultimate music of Americana, coming from the Appalachians in the 1920s. Another version of the song, by Ralph Stanley, later appeared on the O Brother, Where Art Thou Soundtrack in 2000.
It was quickly followed by what is possibly Camper Van Beethoven”s biggest hit, “Take the Skinheads Bowling.” It makes you forget all of your cares, and the Teragram Ballroom became one big sing-a long.
The next song, “Camp Pendelton” from El Camino Real has a really pretty melody. It’s written in the character of a soldier at war talking to his wife back home. Even after all of the fun songs, the combination of beauty, poetry and melancholy had me weeping at these lyrics, “I have dreamed immortal sun / I gazed upon the fiery surfaces / And I fought down burning roads / The highways littered with our humanity / I see your face safely at home / Baby keep home fires burning / Keep the children safe, and dress them the same / ‘Cause I have changed, I’ve changed forever…”
Camper Van quickly lifted me back up with their jovial, toe-tapping songs, “Good Guys and Bad Guys,” and “We’re a Bad Trip.” The show ended with a bang with the very punk, fist-pumping, “Club Med Sucks!” It confused me that I was the only one pumping my fist in the air during each chorus.
The entire band was wearing a uniform of blue jeans and a black shirt, all except for Segel, who dared to wear an orange/red T-shirt under a flannel. I did notice that no one in Cracker was wearing matching clothing. Guitarist Johnny Hickman was particularly stylish with an embroidered Western shirt and perfectly coiffed hair that may or may not have been blow dried with a round hairbrush.
Opening with “Loser,” a Jerry Garcia Cover, Cracker drew an even more attentive crowd than Camper Van. Most of the set came from Kerosene Hat, including their biggest hits, “Eurotrash Girl” and “Low.” The band is more mainstream than Camper Van, but also way country. During “King of Bakersfield” you can almost taste the beer on tap.
The Johnny Hickman song, “Friend” from Sunset in the Land of Milk and Honey is a country duet with nice harmonies. The lyrics, “That’s the kind of friend that you’ve got” could almost work on Sesame Street if you took out the flirting and fighting. Another song of Hickman’s, “California Country Boy” celebrates the farms and small towns of California as contrasted with the palm trees and movie stars of L.A. It would be easy to contrast the instrumentation of the Segel and Hickman songs, but the slide guitar kind of does same job as the violin.
David Lowery’s lyrics are consistently wry and self-effacing, like “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now…” is another folk singer, like I need a hole in my head). Lowery’s stage patter also is awesome, explaining to the audience that the drummer for both bands that night, Coco, got the nickname of “El Tractor” when the crowd started chanting that at a festival they were playing. Of course the audience at the Teragram all started chanting, “El TracTOR! El TracTOR!” to which Lowery responded, “See how easy that is? That’s how fascism starts. That’s the fun part.”
Sadly, I missed the opening band, alt-country-rockers Buffalo Jones, but I chatted with them in the lobby. I checked them out on the internet later, and they are definitely worth a listen. David Lowery produced them, and he sings on a couple of their songs. So, along with playing one of his songs from his solo autobiographical album, In the Shadow of the Bull, Lowery had his hand in everything that night. I had to wonder if he was also making pizzas in the kitchen. I bet they would be some damn fine pizzas.