January 27, 2014

Live Review: Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven at 40 Watt Club, Saturday, Jan. 25



Photo Credit: Jason Thrasher

Camper Van Beethoven

Band residencies at the 40 Watt have become a perennial thing to keep concertgoers busy during the winter months. In addition to the upcoming three-night stand by the Drive-By Truckers, the now-annual Camp-In has given Athens transplant David Lowery the chance to curate a weekend for his own bands and to showcase a few others included in that sonic orbit.

It’d be hard to say that Camper Van Beethoven has had anything resembling a smash hit in its 30 years of writing and performing live, but the band's songs still have the cultural resonance to make devoted fans groove around the floor like teenagers (I saw more than a few middle-aged fans raise their beers in approval during the hour-long set).

But it's important to emphasize that it was more than just nostalgia motivating the crowd’s endorsement; the band is comprised of veteran players that know their parts front to back. Although CVB culls from a pretty deep well to mix punk and jazz sounds, it manages to find a pop pulse most of the time. Just when songs would meander into swirls of strange, Mediterranean-influenced sounds, the band would kick back into a three-chord jangle and the crowd would eat it up.

Lowery might be front and center in his role as lead vocalist, but multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel took his share of the spotlight, especially during his searing violin parts in “Pictures of Matchstick Men” from 1989’s Key Lime Pie and “Take the Skinheads Bowling” from the band’s 1985 debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory. They’re not exactly sing-alongs, but they have their place in the canon of cult-rock.

If CVB is Lowery’s right-brained band, Cracker is no doubt his left-brained, “to-the-point” project. No-frills '90s rock has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the past few years, so singles like “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)” and “Low” were unsurprising crowd favorites. The band’s radio-friendly sound takes the “fancy fills, but no egregious solos” approach seriously, so there weren’t nearly as many stretched-out jams as there were in CVB’s set.