Sweatin’ to the Oldies with Cracker and Camper van Beethoven

Two long-running bands play a spirited show for serious fans.

The middle-age former hipsters were out in force. They queued at the bar like their younger counterparts never would, and ordered Johnny Walker Black Label. They left the kids at home, and brought a big doobie. One fifty-plus trio lit up no sooner than the second song. It was a good night to be a Cracker fan.

Last Monday’s show at The Independent proved that Cracker’s take on alt-rock — while commendable and generally better than most of the other stuff of the era — remains as rooted in the early-Nineties as does its enduring fanbase: that is, entirely. Staples like “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now),” from the band’s 1992 self-titled debut, and “Low” and “Euro-Trash Girl,” from its 1993 breakthrough Kerosene Hat, were fun, but mainly in that you-had-to-be-there-in-the-Nineties way. With the exception of “Low,” the band’s biggest hit, which was played loud and fast enough to cover any missteps and muster its quintessential 1993 grunge, the band even looked a bit bored trotting out the hits.

But that didn’t stop the sold-out crowd, comprised largely of folks who were there in the early-Nineties — in fact, they were probably already working-stiff thirtysomethings by then — from eating up the hits, and everything else, too. They had plenty of time to do so. The show ran from 8:30 to nearly midnight and featured a total of five six-song sets alternating like a tennis match between headliner Cracker and real-life-antecedent Camper van Beethoven, both of which are helmed by fifty-year-old singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist David Lowery. To their credit, the older audience members dressed for a night on the town never relented in their affection for Lowery and friends, even when the bands got a bit sloppy, even when some of the Nineties material rang a bit hollow, and even when the show dragged on one set and about a half-hour too long.

Source material aside, the disjointed nature of the evening wasn’t entirely the band’s fault, and was actually a clever solution to a difficult problem: half of Cracker and one-fifth of Camper van Beethoven was stranded by a blizzard in New York. On top of that, Lowery was recovering from a broken left hand. (Fortunately, his guitar playing didn’t suffer much.) But the missing members meant last-minute fill-ins and a bit of extra crossover between the bands. Esteemed Bay Area journeyman drummer/producer Andrew Griffin took over for Camper van Beethoven on ten hours’ notice, and did an admirable job. Even more esteemed Bay Area journeyman drummer/producer Michael Urbano (Cake, Smashmouth, Sheryl Crow) had just as much time to prepare for his gig on the skins for Cracker. He played with more flair and confidence than Griffin — which isn’t surprising considering he was actually in the band for a while in 1991 and 1992 — but also made a few more mistakes.

If Cracker wasn’t at its best playing some of its more dated, modern-rock-based material, it made a damn fine case for its ability to harness and ever-so-slightly tweak blues, country, and roots music — which, fortunately, is the greater part of the band’s eight-album catalog to date. The night started on a strong point with Lowery and longtime guitarist Jonathan Hickman alone on stage. All six songs employed the same basic framework: Lowery strumming or picking open chords on his acoustic; Hickman playing distorted, palm-muted chords on his electric; Lowery singing wry, forlorn vignettes of the West; Hickman wrapping things up with searing blues leads. The stripped-down setup and careful song selection played to Lowery’s strength as an evocative songwriter, particularly on “Been Around the World,” from 2000’s Garage D’Or.

The show was a sixth-annual Christmastime joint concert between Cracker and Camper van Beethoven at the venue, so naturally the latter band was in just as high demand from the get-go. Judging by their ages, most of the fans in attendance were likely Camper fans before Cracker came along, which explains the hipster residue. Eclectic, off-beat, and irreverent — yet musically accomplished — Camper’s five members were hipster musicians’ hipster musicians. They looked every bit the part when they arrived on stage and announced they were going to take the crowd back to 1989. Or even further back: The band formed in 1983 and released five records before disbanding in 1990. (They reunited in 1999, but some things you can never get back.) Still, hopes were high.

However, Camper’s two sets sandwiched between a trio of Cracker sets were more middling than anything. For the most part, they sidestepped Cracker’s highs and lows for a steady, if forgettable, hour on stage. The four or so highlights included “Borderline,” a ska number featuring a violin providing both syncopated rhythm and intermittent riffs, and “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” perhaps the band’s most recognizable tune, sounding about as good as ever. Its lyrics recalled a simpler era for the fancy-free worker-bees in attendance: There’s not a line that goes here that rhymes with anything/I had a dream last night, but I forget what it was.

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