What a great way to end 2014. There's so much to tell about this show that I'm almost at a loss as to where to begin....
Let's start with the music - that is, after all, why we were all there. This is the tenth annual Christmas thru New Years jaunt through California for this tour, and the capacity crowd at The Independent in San Francisco stated quite loudly that they got it right. Both bands played headline length sets with Cracker opening the show, Camper Van Beethoven closing, then Cracker coming back for a show ending encore, and both put on shows that clearly defined why both are so revered, respected.
Cracker came out sporting an extended lineup which features non-regular members Victor Krummenacher on bass (who earned an honorable mention for playing with both bands), Thayer Sarrano on keyboards and vocals, Jordan Shapiro on steel guitar, and returning drummer Michael Urbano, he of the band's original lineup. These additional players were brought along to bolster and replicate the arrangements from the band's new double album, Berkeley To Bakersfield, and in these times of lean tour budgets, Lowery and Hickman are to be commended for spending the dough so wisely.
David Lowery is fast becoming 'Activist David Lowery', and while he's doing better work than anyone in the world when it comes to the battle for fairness in recording artist royalties, he's also one of the best American songwriters of the last thirty years. He straddled the line to start the evening with a stark solo rendition of "Torches And Pitchforks" from the new record after walking on to the sounds of Ennio Morricone's theme from the movie classic The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, and this was his only overt reference to his new found role as spokesman for every man who ever wrote a song, before he stepped into the role of frontman for two of the finest touring outfits to be found.
Lowery's longtime Cracker stablemate and partner, Johnny Hickman, played some of the tastiest guitar this side of Mick Taylor's days with the Stones, sang his ass off, and in an act unbeknownst to 90% of the audience put on a tremendous example of the term 'true grit'. I had the pleasure of talking to Hickman as he came out to collegially add some background vocals to CVB's set from the side of the stage, and after I told him how much I enjoyed his band's set, he looked at me, smiled, and stated that he was happy about that because he wasn't sure. When I looked back at him rather confusedly, he showed me a heavily bandaged left index finger, and told me a gruesome tale of how he nearly severed the finger's tip just before the band was set to hit the stage. I had seen Cracker's set from the back of the hall so I hadn't seen, heard, or noticed any evidence of said misadventure - evidently he had gotten through most of the set by working around his injury, but at some point he had thrown caution to the wind in going for a string bend which he says he has done a thousand times, but this time he knew he shouldn't have, and it had resulted in his completely reopening the wound, resulting in copious amounts of blood running down his arm into his sleeve and covering the neck of Lucky #7, his faithful 1977 Gibson Les Paul Standard. He even came back out after CVB's set to perform a two song encore with Cracker to end the evening. Yes, this is the very definition of true grit.
Cracker played a fiery set that featured no less than nine songs from Berkeley To Bakersfield, and it says much about the band and their fans that despite the fact that the record hasn't been officially out for a month, the crowd was singing along with every chorus - this is made easier by the fact that the tunes are so damned engaging, but the crowd's performance points to an agreement that this album may be the band's crowning achievement to this point. How many bands can come out blasting four brand new songs to start a show, and have their fans sing them right back at them? The presence of drummer Michael Urbano was a huge contribution to not just the sound onstage, but also to the obvious looks of joy on the faces of Lowery and Hickman as they locked in on a nice collection of classics from the band's catalog. The addition of the supplemental musicians brought much to the sounds and songs, especially Shapiro's tremendous steel guitar vocabulary, and Sarrano's hauntingly sweet background vocals.
Not many bands would welcome going on after such a lovefest between band and fans, but Camper Van Beethoven were more than up for the task. David Lowery's songwriting with CVB becomes almost completely another beast from that which he does with Cracker when it is combined with the instrumental interplay of multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel, Krummenacher, and guitarist Greg Lisher. Whereas Cracker may evoke thoughts toward Americana, roots rock, and early Brit rock guitar fire power, CVB embraces a headier, more eclectic musical world view, at times making the mind flash back to Lowell George's Little Feat, psychedelic pop, and a definite nod to Northern California's musical reign in the sixties. Jonathan Segel put on a fantastic display of tonal wizardry as he bounced from violin to electric guitar with equal mastery, and Greg Lisher played chorus after chorus of melodic lead guitar from across the stage. They are also joined on this tour by Michael Urbano on the drums, and even though he could be seen reading charts to follow the the tunes, his sheer musicality would at times take over, and he would lead the band to even greater heights with his commanding fills and thoughtful accompaniment.
I mentioned up top that David Lowery is becoming quite well known as an activist and educator, but that should not overshadow the fact that in the last several years he has managed to write and release no less than five albums of A-list material (his solo Palace Guards, two albums with CVB, and the Cracker four sider). It's a bit mind boggling to think that a guy could function as a well known activist, a college level instructor (he teaches music business courses at the University of Georgia), and to write, sing, and perform with two successful bands, but he does it. That he manages to do so without ever seeming to step on the toes, or detract from the quality of any of these pursuits only makes the act more impressive. A stern, sober version perhaps of Tom Petty, he's one of our finest songwriters, with a distinctive voice that is equally impressive in any of his musical guises, and if you ever want a lesson on how to play rhythm guitar you need to watch this guy, and his band commanding right hand. The fucking guy should run for president.
So, what did we learn?
First, we learned that it is the music that matters - I am a jaded fifty-five year old who can still drive five hours back and forth in a day to once again become in my mind a fifteen year old lover of rock, and all its possibilities. Then we learned about true grit and responsibility - it would have been easy for Johnny Hickman to pack it up and go home after a severe injury, but he suited up and played instead of causing the cancellation of a large block of work for a dozen or so co-workers, venues, and thousands of adoring fans. And, he did it with a smile on his face. We also were again reminded that Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven are two of the best American rock bands of the last quarter century, and appear to be gaining strength in a time in which some fools would proclaim rock dead. Then there is the lesson of David Lowery - it's all about putting in the work, living out your passions, and staying in the game.
Two great bands, a great venue (kudos to front of house sound man Xifer Forteeay, his mix was wonderful), a superb audience, and a great night of music. There are three more shows remaining on the West Coast Run 2014 (Santa Barbara, Solana Beach, and Denver) - if you have a chance, do catch one of these shows, it is an incredible bargain.