Cracker and Camper van Beethoven revisit 90′s classics

A review of Cracker and Camper van Beethoven at the Middle East Downstairs on January 16, 2011

, Staff Writer

Led by frontman David Lowery, Cracker and Camper van Beethoven hit the Middle East in Cambridge as part of a nationwide tour to celebrate each of the band’s past. Before a crowd of mostly older fans eager to get their nostalgia kicks in (though kids from the 90’s were also peppered in), the two bands ran through their most successful albums, 1993’s Kerosene Hat and 1989’s Key Lime Pie, respectively. What resulted was a mixed bag. On the one hand, musically, Lowery and his bands were spot-on, delivering fantastic performances that pleased everyone in the crowd. On the other hand, though, there’s something kinda sad about hearing a past-its-prime band play an old hit, let alone two entire albums.

Though both bands played great, Lowery seemed much more comfortable during Cracker’s set, which came during the second half of the evening. It makes sense, since CVB is a bit more complex, mixing a number of different styles, where as Cracker is pretty straightforward grunge-y rock. Nonetheless, Key Lime Pie sounded great, wandering psychedelic soundscapes inflected with soft violin and surreal lyrics. It’s hard to place CVB’s sound, considering how much they threw into their time on stage: “Might Makes Right” had a sort of Middle Eastern ska feel to it, while a song like “New Roman Times” was pretty distinctly country. There were some pretty interesting covers as the set wound down, too, including the Clash’s “White Riot” and a fantastic rendition of Status Quo’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men.”

After a brief intermission, Cracker took the stage. The performance of Kerosene Hat was fairly straightforward. Everyone erupted in excitement as the opening notes of Cracker’s biggest hit, “Low”, poured through the Middle East’s PA, and guitarist Johnny Hickman did a great job keeping things energized throughout the set.

Playing familiar material kept the audience in rapture the entire time, and there was certainly a great communal feeling going through the venue, especially during Cracker’s set. While the somewhat younger audience was less familiar with CVB’s music, Kerosene seemed to have been memorized by nearly everyone in the crowd. It was heartening to see a whole crowd so intimately-versed with the group’s album. The most interesting part of the evening came after Kerosene’s primary tracks had been run through. At this point, the band started playing music from their Tuscon EP, which is found in between Kerosene’s many hidden tracks. Easily one of the evening’s finest moments was an absolutely monumental cover of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”. The energetic-enough tune was taken to even higher levels by Cracker and the band left the stage having sufficiently blown everyone’s ears out.

So, in the end, the show was a mixed bag. Musically, everything was fantastic. But does it cheapen the experience knowing the band is just counting on former glory and nostalgia? It’s tough to say. There isn’t much that’s sadder than an artist rehashing old hits from a lack of anything new to say. David Lowery has an album of new material coming out, though, so perhaps this tour is more about acknowledging the past so that we can move on to new endeavors. In any case, the concert itself was fantastic and more than anything else, made most of us wish it were the 90’s again.

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