Cracker / Camper Van Beethoven

Lee's Palace, Toronto ON, January 15

Cracker / Camper Van BeethovenLee's Palace, Toronto ON, January 15
Photo: Kevin Jones
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Considering that David Lowery's bands Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker enjoyed their commercial heyday in, respectively, the late '80s and early '90s, news that he was back on the road fronting both groups as a double act might have fuelled suspicions of just another camping trip down memory lane. Thankfully, he is made of sterner stuff, fighting nostalgia by continuing to create credible new material in both outfits. As he proudly told the capacity crowd, he has put out four new albums in the past two years, 2013's La Costa Perdita and 2014's El Camino Real with CVB, and the recently released (and superb) Cracker double album, Berkeley To Bakersfield.
 
Unlike many veteran acts, he's not afraid to load plenty of new songs into the set list, and these were warmly received. Given that both bands played 75-minute sets, there was still lots of time left to reprise the favourites the punters had come for. It was impressive that Lowery and his bandmates still seemed to genuinely enjoy playing the hits, 1,000 times (or much more) later. Camper Van Beethoven's hit cover of Status Quo's "Pictures of Matchstick Men" drew loud cheers early on, while the still irresistible "Take The Skinheads Bowling" was saved for later. The two guitars, bass, drums and violin lineup for most songs delivered a full sound, and Lowery's rather deadpan vocals were up in the mix enough to make his witty and perceptive lyrics audible. The secret weapon in CVB is original member Jonathan Segel, who added keyboards, guitar and backing vocals, as well as fluent violin. He dazzled with a klezmer-like solo that led into "Matchstick Men," and the violin added needed variety to the sound, as much of their material settles into chugging guitar-fuelled mid-tempo rock'n'roll.
 
Songs based in and inspired by Lowery's home state of California (like "Northern California Girls") dominated the CVB (and Cracker) repertoire, though other songs here featured an encounter with a viper in Sweden ("Too High For The Love") and a croquet-playing colonialist ("All Her Favorite Fruit"). The raucous and sophomorically funny Segel-led "(We're a) Bad Trip" was a highlight, with Lowery joking, "We wrote that at 12." He also started a running gag about (mythical) Canadian border guards who stole his hat, tased and extorted money from them. The sweetly haunting La Costa Perdita track "Summer Days" made a fine set closer.
 
After a 20-minute break, Lowery and his CVB rhythm section (featuring original bassist Victor Krummenacher) re-emerged as Cracker, joined by that band's co-founder Johnny Hickman, pedal steel player Pistol and a different keyboardist. Lowery could never be accused of being a sonic adventurer, but there is definitely more variety in his tunes for Cracker than CVB. He kicked things off with "Where Have Those Days Gone," a 2006 tune revamped on Berkeley To Bakersfield. Hickman took over lead vocal chores effectively on a couple of country-rooted new tunes from Bakersfield ("The San Bernardino Boy" was a highlight), and his chunky yet crisp guitar playing was a consistent treat. The Berkeley side of the new album featured here included the pointed social commentary of "March Of The Billionaires," sung with fitting scorn by Lowery.
 
Given that Cracker have released nine earlier albums, choosing a setlist must have been a headache, but the flow here was just about impeccable. Rather than predictably holding back their classic hits "Low" and "Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)" for encore time, they ripped through them with gusto four songs in, the latter song eliciting the biggest cheers of the night. Two other faves from their self-titled 1992 debut, "I See The Light" and "This Is Cracker Soul," also went over well while, to no one's surprise, the still-hilarious "Euro-Trash Girl" had the beaming crowd singing along.
 
The ballad of a gambler "Loser" (off 1993's Kerosene Hat) was their encore choice. In it, Lowery claims, "You know I'm only in it for the gold." Judging by his obvious enjoyment up there and the highly generous two hours and 40 minutes he spent onstage this night, that is clearly untrue. He's hooked on this, and for that we are very grateful.

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