When I first came across David Lowery I didn’t know that he would develop into a musical genius. I had heard the rather weird Camper Van Beethoven track “Take The Skinheads Bowling” back in the mid 80s. I probably heard it on the John Peel show and it was weird enough for me to prick up my ears. That song has been covered by Teenage Fanclub, Manic Street Preachers and featured in Michael Moore’s ‘Bowling For Columbine. If I am honest I had largely forgotten about this marvellous band, there were too many other things going on ok! That song actually made number 8 in the UK Indie chart in 1986, who’d have thought? A work colleague introduced me to then new band Cracker via their two early 90s albums; ‘Cracker’ and ‘Kerosene Hat’ and I really liked them. I am pretty sure that I saw them at the Reading Festival around that time (1992?). But once again Cracker were off my radar just like Camper Van Beethoven before them. Not because they weren’t any good, but simply there was way too much music to enjoy. But I never forgot either band and on my latest US business trip there was an opportunity to visit the Sony Hall in New York City for a headline gig by Cracker, supported by none other than Camper Van Beethoven. I sure as shit was not going to turn down that opportunity was I?
Camper Van Beethoven
I hadn’t been to the Sony Hall in NYC before and to before this is only the fourth gig I had ever attended in the USA, all in NYC so far. The ticket suggested that I would be standing, but actually the whole place was set out like a cabaret/ supper club with waiter/ waitress service at the table. Was that a safe option for an ageing audience? Maybe, but who cares? It is a great venue and this was one hell of an enthusiastic crowd. A five piece Camper Van Beethoven took the stage just after 8:15. How many styles of music can this classic band often labelled as ‘alternative’ actually handle? Bloody loads, including psychedelic, reggae, heavy rock. Americana and so much more. Early in their set we were treated to a truly magnificent cover of Status Quo’s sixties masterpiece “Pictures Of MatchStick Men” (a cover they released back in 1990). Jonathan Segel’s violin on this track was worth the admission price alone. Obviously “Take The Skinheads Bowling” was given an airing, one in which the crowd went absolutely mental, well as mental as a middle-aged seated crowd can go at least. Then there was the kind of medley (described as a rock opera of sorts by David Lowery) which included Led Zeppelin (“Dazed And Confused”, “Kashmir”) and the traditional Israeli folk song “Hava Nagila” along with some Camper Van Beethoven original material. Lowery and the band gave it their all, knowing full well that three of them would be back for the Cracker set. I wouldn’t have fancied Camper Van Beethoven on to that stage, but then I’m not Cracker and David Lowery.
Cracker played a wide-ranging career spanning set with barely a stop for breath, the crowd lapped up every last note and sang along with passion and gusto throughout. There was definitely something for everything with “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and “Mr Wrong” from their eponymously named first album from 1992 up to around four songs from Cracker’s 9th album ‘Berkeley To Bakersfield’. Lowery’s vocals were solid and beautiful throughout, especially as he had sung his heart out in the earlier support set. If I was forced under pain of death to put Cracker into a genre I would have to say Americana with strong country and West Coast rock elements. At times I felt that they could easily compete with the Eagles; notably on the Johnny Hickman sung “California Country Boy” and “King Of Bakersfield”. Hickman’s guitar playing was sublime as was the heavenly slide guitar contribution on many of the songs, unfortunately I didn’t catch the slide guitarists name. There were many highlights from the bluesy rock out of “Low” and the fun and funky “How Can I Live Without You”. There was not a duff song or anything like one throughout the whole set they closed with “One Fine Day” and just when I thought it could never get any better the band returned for an encore in which for me they even topped the peaks they had reached earlier with a powerful, passionate call to arms consisting of “El Comandante” and perhaps the band’s finest song in my opinion, “Beautiful”. It was indeed a truly beautiful night which warmed me up against the very sub-zero temperatures outside. I smiled all the way back to my hotel and went to sleep smiling too. If you have never seen Cracker or Camper van Beethoven I suggest you kick off a late new year resolution to make sure that you do very soon!
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