Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker Bring Classic Albums to “Santa Cruz with Banjos”

Celebrated yet decidedly underground, Camper Van Beethoven released five albums in the latter half of the 1980s. Quite unlike the prevailing styles of that era, Camper developed a wry, intelligent mélange of musical styles that drew from places both familiar and wholly unexpected. The group’s commercial height was 1988’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart (the title is a nod to Patti Hearst), but that album only reached the lower rungs of Billboard’s 200 chart.  Their finest effort was 1989’s Key Lime Pie; it included (as per the group’s standard approach) one left-field cover, in this case a reading of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.” Camper was always – and deservedly so — a critics’ darling; they were a cult favorite with a rabid if smallish fan base. Notwithstanding some regroupings (more on which forthwith) the band folded at the end of the 80s.

Bandleader/guitarist David Lowery then applied his musical vision to a slightly more commercial enterprise called Cracker. Musically more straightforward but lyrically every bit the equal of Camper, Cracker would enjoy more chart success. The group’s second album Kerosene Hat remains their most well-known release, though all of the group’s albums are held in high regard by most critics. Several songs of note appeared on Kerosene Hat: “Low” and “Get Off This” were charting singles, and the unlisted track “Eurotrash Girl” was a favorite of (what was then called) modern rock radio. Cracker never exactly broke up, but the spaces between album releases often extended to a few years.

Both groups have resurfaced — with personnel overlaps – in the 21st century, and in 2011 a tandem tour was announced. Following a popular modern-day tradition of performing entire albums start to finish (see also: Brian Wilson, Arthur Lee, Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, The Church, etc.). Camper Van Beethoven is performing Key Lime Pie, and Cracker is bringing the complete Kerosene Hat to the stage. Clearly the bands have a good amount of faith in the strength of each of these albums to mount such a production. “If it were 1988 or 1989 now,” Lowery observes, “people would be most familiar with ‘Low.’ But there’s a whole history with these bands now – and it’s been so many years since we had those hits – that most people who’ll come to the show are familiar with the whole albums. People who follow us are,” he chuckles, “way past the notion of hits.” Lowery says that “with these bands, it’s all about the album cuts. Not only did Kerosene Hat have hit singles, it sold over a million copies. And it continues to sell; it’s what the music business calls a catalog item.”

When Cracker performs Kerosene Hat live, the arrangements hew pretty closely to the studio versions. “Cracker, especially with that album, largely recorded live in the studio, Lowery explains. “So the way we recorded the songs is the way we’d play them live.” And that studio approach was largely free from the sort of sonic gimmicks and production tricks that might have made it date poorly. Lowery cedes some of the credit for the album’s timeless sound to Donald Smith, the studio engineer who recorded the sessions. Lowery says that Smith (who passed away in 2010) “had a very organic engineering style” that he brought to his work with Cracker and other clients including Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Add to that the fact that Cracker has “never tried to be on the cusp of what’s trendy or popular,” Lowery says. “We’re aware of the past, but not slavishly devoted to it.”

Part of the motivation for the current album-onstage tours is a desire to “shake it up for the bands,” Lowery says. “Between the two bands, we’ve been around for twenty-seven years. And this is a year in which there’s not a Camper Van Beethoven or Cracker album out. So we though we’d do something special.”

When I first heard Camper Van Beethoven — especially early records like 1986’s II & III – their approach reminded me of the late 60s experimental, groundbreaking Kaleidoscope, an overlooked group that included David Lindley and Chris Darrow. Lowery admits they were “absolutely” an influence. “They were from the same area in [Santa Cruz] California where Camper became popular,” he notes. “When Camper did our first album [1985’s Telephone Free Landslide Victory], I don’t think we were clearly aware of Kaleidoscope.” He says that it was SST Records’ promotions manager Ray Farrell who first pointed out the similarities. Both groups successful brought together disparate musical styles, drawing previously undiscovered connections between them. And both managed to do it in a way that is, in Lowery’s estimation, “not dilettantish.” He characterizes the approach as “drawing out subtexts and subcurrents that have always existed.”

Beyond this tour, Lowery hopes that there will be new studio albums from Camper Van Beethoven and/or Cracker in the near future. “It’s been a while since the bands have put their noses to the grindstone,” he muses. Lowery mentions his latest solo album The Palace Guard; that record is receiving very positive critical notices as well. “It got a five-star rating in the international version of Rolling Stone,” he laughs, “but not in the U.S. edition!”

Lowery admits to a “special relationship” with Asheville NC, one of the stops on the current tour. Cracker headlined the city’s popular Bele Chere Festival in 2009, and mere weeks ago Lowery did an acoustic in-store at Asheville’s Harvest Records. Lowery recalls the first time Cracker visited Asheville; on that visit bandmate Johnny Hickman remarked to him, “Oh, I get this place: Asheville is like Santa Cruz with banjos!”

“I do in-stores in lots of places, but you don’t usually have people flowing out the door, onto the streets,” Lowery enthuses. “Asheville’s a perfect storm of roots, Americana and indie-rock stuff. And that’s Camper/Cracker, right there.”

Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker will appear at Asheville NC’s popular concert venue The Orange Peel on Thursday, May 12 2011.

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