Thu Jan 16 2020
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The Middle East presents:
Camper Van Beethoven
During Cracker's heyday in the 1990s, the Virginia-based band molded elements of alternative pop/rock and country into several irreverent, buzzworthy anthems. Singer/guitarist David Lowery made no attempt to mask his affinity for traditional roots music, but his own background was far from traditional, as he spent the '80s fronting the quirky alternative outfit Camper Van Beethoven. Shortly after Camper Van Beethoven embarked on a long hiatus in 1990, Lowery began demoing new material with guitarist Johnny Hickman and bassist Davey Faragher. The three musicians named the project Cracker (although several of those early demos would later surface under the title David Lowery Demo Mixes) and set up their headquarters in Richmond, VA. By 1991, the band had signed a recording contract with Virgin Records and enlisted the help of several drummers (Jim Keltner, Rick Jaeger, and Phil Jones), all of whom helped shape the sound of Cracker's debut album.
Cracker released their self-titled debut in 1992. Filled with guitar-driven rock songs and gravelly vocals, the album established Cracker's presence in the rock arena, and "Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)" became a number one modern rock single. A year later, the sophomore effort Kerosene Hat spawned another popular MTV/radio hit with "Low," which charted in the U.K. and also cracked the pop charts in America. The album went platinum as a result. By the time Golden Age arrived in 1996, however, the band's hitmaking lineup had begun to splinter. Bassist Faragher was replaced by Bob Rupe, while the drum spot was occupied by a trio of players: Charlie Quintana, Eddie Bayers, and Johnny Hott.
Golden Age spun off another hit with "I Hate My Generation," and the band toured in support of its release. After returning home from the road, Lowery began focusing on his Richmond-based recording studio, Sound of Music, where he produced such artists as Joan Osborne, Lauren Hoffman, Magnet, Fighting Gravity, and Sparklehorse. He also co-produced the Counting Crows along with former Camper Van Beethoven producer Dennis Herring. Lowery's work wasn't limited to the music world, however, as he co-starred in director Eric Drilling's independent film River Red (also composing the film's score) and appeared in another film, director Matt Leutwyler's This Space Between Us.
By the end of the decade, Cracker seemed to have settled on a somewhat permanent lineup comprised of drummer Frank Funaro, keyboardist/accordion player Kenny Margolis, and the preexisting core of Lowery, Hickman, and Rupe. This version of the band issued 1998's Gentleman's Blues, a more reflective album that saw the musicians paying homage to Southern rock and blues. Camper Van Beethoven unexpectedly re-formed shortly thereafter, and Lowery began splitting his time between both bands, whose other members frequently joined whichever group was on the road.
Cracker (along with select musicians from CVB) issued a live album, 2001's Traveling Apothecary Show & Revue, and Cracker followed its release with Forever (2002) and a rowdy set of country covers called Countrysides in 2003. The latter album also marked Cracker's first effort as an independent band, as they had recently left the Virgin roster. Three years later, Cracker returned (this time via the U.K.-based indie label Cooking Vinyl) with Greenland, which featured help from guest artists David Immergl??ck and Mark Linkous. Another concert release, Berlin (Live in Berlin December 2006), arrived in 2008, and the studio effort Sunrise in the Land of Milk and Honey which cracked Billboard's Top 200 chart, followed one year later in 2009. That same year the band went on a tour of Iraq, playing for U.S. troops while working on the "Yalla Yalla" video which was produced by compiling YouTube videos of American soldiers stationed overseas. Public radio network NPR profiled the tour on their weekly series The Show. A year later the band played a series of sold-out shows with Camper Van Beethoven duubed the 2010 Traveling Apothecary Tour. ~ Andrew Leahey & Greg Prato, Rovi
Back in the day, before alternative rock was invented and indie rock was still shy of roots music and other folk elements, Camper Van Beethoven's merging of punk, folk, ska, and world music was truly a revelation. Singer/songwriter David Lowery's smart-aleck lyrics, delivered in laid-back California style, combined with Jonathan Segel's violin as lead instrument were the band's instant trademarks. Twenty years after its inception, the CVB sound is still remarkably fresh and its influence on alternative music undeniable and resounding.
Self-described as "surrealist absurdist folk," the group had its beginnings in the summer of 1983 when Lowery and boyhood friend Victor Krummenacher (bass) started playing music together around Riverside and Redlands, CA. Upon relocating to the Northern California college town of Santa Cruz, they enlisted friends Chris Pedersen (drums) and Chris Molla (guitar) to join the fold; Greg Lisher (guitar) and Jonathan Segel (violins, keyboards, mandolin) were added in 1985, and collectively they created a repertoire built on acoustic and electric, traditional and punky aesthetics. The reissue of the band's self-released 1985 debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, which included their signature song, "Take the Skinheads Bowling," made the Top Ten in the 1986 Village Voice Pazz and Jop Poll, as did their second album, the confusingly titled II & III, along with their self-titled third album, both released in 1986. In addition to the punk and ska, II & III dabbled in lo-fi sounds, with touches of country (as in the original, "Sad Lovers Waltz" and the twangy cover of Sonic Youth's "I Love Her All the Time"). The band's forte was its ability to switch styles, from Balkan folk to psychedelic rock on alternate takes and sometimes even within the same song!
The third album, Camper Van Beethoven, continued the thread, as blueprint CVB tracks like "Joe Stalin's Cadillac" and "Good Guys and Bad Guys" fused punk-inspired looseness with more sophisticated melody and rhythm patterns. At the same time, they were blowing minds and ears with their prog rock leanings (check their nearly note-perfect version of Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive"). By the time of their Virgin Records debut (coinciding with the label's U.S. re-launch in 1988), the band took a more serious tack for its fourth album, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. With Molla gone by then, the group was officially a five-piece, though a cadre of friends assisted them at recording sessions, including producer Dennis Herring (eventually, touring guitarist David Immergl??ck, later of Counting Crows, became an honorary sixth member). Stretching out in larger studio facilities and experimenting with sound, Sweetheart was the first CVB release met with mixed critical response. Following the elegiac Key Lime Pie and amid creative and personal strife, in 1989 the band (then featuring female fiddler Morgan Fichter in place of Segel) called it a night. Krummenacher, Pedersen, and Lisher (with Immergl??ck) continued to play together in Monks of Doom, a mostly instrumental prog rock concern as well as in other formations that sometimes included Segel in the '90s. Segel released three albums as Hieronymous Firebrain from 1990-1994 and two with Jack & Jill for the Magnetic label. In 2005 he collaborated with Dina Emerson in Chaos Butterfly. Krummenacher has released six solo albums and has collaborated with Eugene Chadbourne, Bruce Kaphan, and members of Tarnation among others, also released through Magnetic. Lisher has two self-released solo albums to his credit. In the wake of the band's dissolution, Lowery formed Cracker, by far the most successful of the post-Camper ventures; it served as a vehicle to keep him on the road as well as a way to keep Camper's name in circulation, though he kept a distance from his bandmates and left California for Richmond, VA. By 1999, Krummenacher, Segel, and Lowery were reunited while compiling an unorthodox rarities collection, Camper Van Beethoven Is Dead: Long Live Camper Van Beethoven, a mash-up of rare cuts utilizing the band's catalog. In 2002, they officially issued their song-for-song version of Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, recorded on a lark in 1987. In the process of reissuing and archiving, the original members (sans Pedersen) quietly reunited for a handful of live shows and began work on a new batch of songs. In 2004 they released New Roman Times (a concept album about a Texas teen who joins the military then leaves ranks to join an anti-government militia) featuring all original members including Pedersen on drums and original guitarist Molla sitting in. CVB continue to tour, often in support of alternative acts who've followed in their groundbreaking indie rock footprints. ~ Denise Sullivan, Rovi