Camper Van Beethoven, Cracker and a near-brawl at Lee's Palace
I've seen Cracker at least a half-dozen times over the years, most recently last June at this same Toronto venue, but I'd only seen Camper Van Beethoven once before at a similar double bill to this one in Austin, Texas the night I turned 40 four years ago.
I have five CVB albums and was quite a fan of its eclectic and quirky music back in the mid- to late '80s, so I was looking forward to the current incarnation of the reunited group more so than Cracker. Both bands are fronted by singer/guitarist David Lowery and, with only a short break for a change-over, he was on stage for close to three hours on Saturday night. So was drummer Frank Funaro, who was also doing double-duty in both groups. The CVB lineup was completed by bassist/vocalist Victor Krummenacher, violinist/guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Jonathan Segel and lead guitarist Greg Lisher.
Segel's violin gave the handful of instrumentals played throughout the set a gypsy/klezmer flavour. I enjoyed them, but would have preferred a few more songs with lyrics in their place.
Early highlights included "Sweethearts," "Eye Of Fatima" and a cover of Black Flag's "Wasted" performed at about half the speed of the original. "Shut Us Down" and "Good Guys & Bad Guys" followed, with the latter ending in dub reggae fashion. "The History Of Utah" was exemplary, and then Lowery launched a diatribe against the police in Montreal, where the band had its gear stolen a few years back. Lowery was recently with Cracker in Iraq and he claimed the cops there were better trained and more helpful than those in Canada's largest French-speaking city.
The music continued with "Might Makes Right" and "Hippy Chix" before CVB pulled out its most popular song, "Take The Skinheads Bowling." It's still great 25 years after being released on the Telephone Free Landslide Victory album.
The home stretch included "The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon," "Opi Rides Again — Club Med Sucks" (which included some hardcore punk elements) and "Seven Languages," before things ended with the band's popular cover of the early Staus Quo hit, "Pictures Of Matchstick Men."
The performance was fine, but I found the set list a bit lacking. I would have been ecstatic to hear "Heart," "Joe Stalin's Cadillac," "We Saw Jerry's Daughter," "Where The Hell Is Bill?" and a few others. But it's rare for CVB to make it to these parts, so just seeing them should be good enough without my quibbling.
Lowery and his longtime Cracker co-conspirator, guitarist/vocalist Johnny Hickman, then took the stage with Funaro and bassist Sal Maida. They opened the set with "Friends" from last year's Sunrise In The Land Of Milk And Honey, a very good album that didn't get as much recognition as it deserved when it came out last year.
The set progressed with "I See The Light" and "Waiting For You Girl" before things took a turn for the strange when Lowery challenged a heckler to come on stage and talk to him because he "wanted to show Americans that there are some assholes in Canada." The lout eventually made it to a microphone and told everyone that he thought Cracker sucked and was boring.
Hickman, who was in great form on guitar and with his voice all night, took offence. He took off his guitar, got in a shoving match with the non-fan and put up his fists in anticipation of a dust-up. Security stepped in and Lowery and the heckler continued to trade insults until the man was forcibly removed from the stage and the building.
Lowery thought the goof had a bit of a German accent, which led to him telling a long story involving "traditional German folk songs about whores," which became a very roundabout introduction to "Euro-Trash Girl." There seemed to be an extra edge to the performance after the tension that had previously overtaken the club, and it worked in Cracker's favour.
Lisher was invited back on stage for "One Fine Day," which featured him and Hickman ripping off explosive dual solos. "Give Me One More Chance" turned into a guitar fest when Lisher stuck around for it.
Two more new songs, "Yalla Yalla (Let's Go)" and "Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out With Me," led to some masterful music storytelling by Lowery in "Duty Free." The opening chords of "Low" drew a big burst of excited recognition from the crowd, and the song ended the 75-minute set.
Hickman rose to the occasion to open the encore by singing the rollicking country-rock number, "Lonesome Johnny Blues." The slower and more sombre "Big Dipper" concluded the encore, but most of the audience stuck around and persuaded Cracker to return with Lisher and Krummenacher in tow for a rendition of CVB's "The Long Plastic Hallway."
It was a spirited performance but, like with CVB, I've been to Cracker shows with more enjoyable set lists. "Teen Angst (What The World Needs Now)," "This Is Cracker Soul," "Get Off This," "Happy Birthday To Me," "Mr. Wrong" and "Movie Star" were all notable by their absences.
So it wasn't the best Cracker show I've seen, but the band is in good form and well worth checking out if you haven't caught it for a few years. Or if you think the band is dull, let it know. That should cause some excitement.