|Johnny Hickman (left) and David Lowery of Cracker. Photo by Bradford Jones/Courtesy of Pavement PR|
Did you love Alternative music in the '90s? Thank bands like Camper Van Beethoven.
Camper Van Beethoven's rise in the late '80s underground music scene was one of many highlights during an amazing time when a crop of releases (The Cure's Disintegration, The Church's Starfish, Soul Asylum's Hang Time, R.E.M.'s Green, etc.) proved that it was possible to produce left-of-the-dial music on major label funds. Of course, these and other groups/album eventually led the way for the Alternative Music boom in the early-to-mid '90s (when everything released for a good five years was somehow lumped into that category), but history sometimes overlooks these important milestones on the road to Nirvana. Camper Van Beethoven's greatest contribution to the pre-Nevermind world was 1989's brilliant Key Lime Pie. Their second album for Virgin Records and fifth full-length overall, Key Lime Pie struck an unforgettable balance between the truly odd (“Opening Theme,” “June,” “The Humid Press Of Day”) and the oddly accessible (“Sweethearts,” the violin-driven remake of Status Quo's “Pictures Of Matchstick Men”). The release of Key Lime Pie led to scores of new fans, while the album still holds up more than 25 years after its release. (A fantastic reissue complete with bonus material was released last year on Omnivore Recordings and will be the subject of a feature on this site in the not-too-distant future.)
Naturally, the band celebrated this success by promptly splitting up, with members of the Key Lime Pie lineup pursuing a variety of other projects. (Bassist Victor Krummenacher, guitarist Greg Lisher and drummer Chris Pedersen made their previous side project Monks of Doom a full-time endeavor, while violinist Morgan Fichter toured with Jane's Addiction.) Frontman David Lowery soon found a new home in Cracker, his band with guitarist Johnny Hickman. Considerably more conventional than Lowery's previous outfit, Cracker scored a bona fide hit single with the song “Low” from 1993's Kerosene Hat. Since then, Lowery's/Crackers's career has been marked by ups and downs (one Cracker highlight being the brief involvement of former Plugz drummer Charlie Quintana), solo projects, a concurrent (and ongoing) Camper Van Beethoven reunion and some controversial words on the current state of the music industry. And on a bitterly cold January night, Lowery's decades-long journey in music took him to the Middle East in the form of a Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker double bill.
As the long line of people who froze their brains out waiting for the club to open its doors to the sold-out show knew, both of these bands are still relevant and worth your time in 2015. The past two years have been an especially active time for both groups, with Camper Van Beethoven delivering two albums (2013's La Costa Perdida and 2014's El Camino Real) and Cracker unveiling a double album (the amazing, recently released Berkeley To Bakersfield). A review of the groups' sizable merch table revealed that individual band members have also stayed ludicrously prolific in recent times with a variety of solo releases. It is inspiring to see these veteran musicians still producing such a high volume of work in the here and now.
So...how did this current work do alongside the classics? Amazingly well. While it came as little surprise that Camper Van Beethoven's beloved older material (such as 1985's immortal “Take The Skinheads Bowling” and the Key Lie Pie triple shot of “Pictures Of Matchstick Men,” “All Her Favorite Fruit” and “Sweethearts”) earned the loudest cheers of their set, contemporary songs like “Too High For The Love-In” (from La Costa Perdida) and “Darken Your Door” (from El Camino Real) were also taken in by the crowd with great enthusiasm. The same went for Cracker's new stuff, highlighted by the Hickman-fronted “California Country Boy” and Lowery's “King Of Bakersfield.” These Country-infused numbers sat comfortably next to older Rock-oriented Cracker tunes like “Low” and 1992's “Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now).”
Boasting virtually identical personnel, both bands delivered solid representations of their combined body of work. Sure, neither of these bands are anywhere close to what you'd call “hip” in 2015. Sure, some of the guys on stage had gray hair and their fans look more like college professors these days than the college kids they once were in the bands' heyday. But as every single person in the shoulder-to-shoulder room understood, David Lowery and his assorted cohorts still have a place in this world because music this genuinely good never comes with an expiration date.
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