LIVE: Camper Van Beethoven/Cracker @ The State Theatre - 5/16/13

Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker may both be fronted by David Lowery, but by design they’ve never sounded alike. CVB is considerably more experimental; any of their albums is just as likely to contain an extended Middle Eastern belly dancing number as it is a rock song. Cracker, on the other hand, has always been about straight up rock and roll, sometimes with a southern bent, other times with an alt-country twang.

In fact the bands’ sounds are so different it almost doesn’t make sense that they play together, save for the obvious benefit of having the same singer/guitarist. Last week’s show at the State Theater was a tale of two audiences; the audience that grew up listening to Camper Van Beethoven on college radio and enjoying their outsider status (many of whom left after CVB’s set), and another that was there for Cracker’s country rock. The dichotomy is clear; Camper Van Beethoven was occasionally featured on MTV’s alternative rock showcase 120 Minutes; Cracker was on the Clueless soundtrack. It was oddly like watching Guided By Voices open for Jimmy Buffet; something fun and experimental followed by something almost totally predictable.

CVB got the night started right. With Counting Crows bassist David Immergluck filling in for an absent Victor Krummenacher, Lowery’s first band ripped a deft combination of 16 new and old songs. Tunes from their latest album La Costa Perdida sounded great; “Northern California Girls” was a wonderful Beach Boys pastiche with intricate guitar and Jonathan Segel’s always amazing violin skills. But it was old favorites like “Pictures of Matchstick Men” that got the CVB faithful going. The Status Quo cover was amazing, sped up and augmented with heavy bass. The band played two more songs from Key Lime Pie (arguably their masterwork) back-to-back, the understated “All Her Favorite Fruit” (which Lowery dedicated to “all the civil servants”) and “Sweethearts” which, even with it’s dated Ronald Reagan reference, still sounds lovely.

They went even further back in the catalog as well, ripping a sped-up version of “Shut Us Down” from their self-titled 1986 album, and adding the crowd favorites “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and their sarcastic cover of Black Flag’s “Wasted” from their debut album, Telephone Free Landslide Victory. Throughout the set, the band members illustrated their unparalleled skills at their instruments; Lowery was content to take a back seat to the musicians around him as Segel and guitarist Greg Lisher played off each other perfectly.

Then came Cracker, kicking things off with the Western-sounding “Loser,” a reverb-filled cover of the classic Jerry Garcia Band track. It was a good start - and totally misleading. The second song, “Mr. Wrong” was considerably more indicative of Cracker’s set, a marathon of shit-kicking faux country (we’ll call it fauxntry) that’s entirely too aware of it’s own cleverness with lines like “I was going to bring you flowers but I didn’t.”

After the intricacy and subtlety of CVB, Cracker’s music was like getting hit with a hammer, only the majority of the crowd didn’t seem to mind. It’s hard not to think that David Lowery is playing a character when he leads this band; the audience seems to believe that the guy on stage really thinks that the world needs “another folk singer like I need a whole in my head,” apparently unaware that his recent solo album is pretty darn folkie. Perhaps they only hear what they want to hear – like the gentleman who kept yelling “EUROTRASH GIRL” from the second the band took the stage, through the opening riffs of the song, straight on through it, and then after it was over.

There were high moments. “Gimme One More Chance” from 2006’s Greenland featured a blistering blues riff and some of guitarist Johnny Hickman’s best work. Hickman also handled vocal duties on Cracker’s fun cover of the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Shake Some Action” (their aforementioned contribution to the Clueless soundtrack).

But too many songs just sounded the same, and by the 12th song, the monotonous “Turn On Tune In Drop Out With Me,” the crowd starting hitting the gate. By the time CVB came out for one more song (which was odd in an of itself – the opening act coming back for an encore after the headliner?) the place was half empty.

It’s clear Lowery makes good bank by touring with his two bands simultaneously (and as he’d be the first to tell you, it’s not easy making money in music these days), but it would be great to see CVB do a full set at a smaller club, and let Cracker find a more appropriate opener. CVB’s music holds up well and still sounds fresh and unique. Cracker’s, not so much.

All photos by Kevin Hill (