Camper Van Beethoven – Knitting Factory (New York City, NY)
“You guys didn’t tell me this was on the set list!” guitarist/vocalist David Lowery called to his bandmates halfway through the second of three sold-out shows at New York City’s Knitting Factory.
“I hope you’re OK with that,” bassist Victor Krummenacher offered before Camper Van Beethoven launched into “Down And Out”, from their 1986 album II & III. Despite his surprise, Lowery crashed through the song, enthusiastically sneering out the lyrics “Gonna move to the city!/Gonna join a rock and roll band!/Gonna dress and act like Lou Reed!” It felt just like old times.
Of course, the members of Camper Van Beethoven haven’t been idle since their 1990 breakup; each managed to stay busy with a variety of bands, studios and independent labels. But for longtime fans, this was different from seeing Lowery’s band Cracker, or Krummenacher and his cohorts’ Monks of Doom. Camper Van Beethoven was a band that melded smartass humor with adventurous ethno-musical experimentation, a band for whom hilarity wasn’t dependent on simplicity.
And now they were back, ostensibly to celebrate the release of their long-lost album, Tusk. (Yes, it’s a full-length remake of the 1979 Fleetwood Mac album.)
Despite the cramped quarters — Lowery, Krummenacher, Jonathan Segel, David Immergluck and Greg Lisher shared the stage with Cracker’s Kenny Margolis and Frank Funaro — Camper was able to capture their trademark offbeat arrangements.
The first part of the set recalled their later, darker work, including the opening “Flowers” and the ominous instrumental “Waka.” Winding their way through “O Death” — which they recorded back in 1989, long before its O Brother revival — and “Eye Of Fatima (Parts I & II)”, they demonstrated what could be accomplished with a stage full of multi-instrumentalists. (Segel shifted from violin to guitar to computer; Lowery played with one hand on his own computer; Immergluck bounced between mandolin and pedal steel; Margolis alternated between organ and accordion.)
Once they’d proven that 12 years off hadn’t taken their edge away, it was time to have fun. Their withering account of ’80s trends, “Where The Hell Is Bill?”, became a sing-along; “Joe Stalin’s Cadillac” included a quick reference to the current president; “History Of Utah” and “Down And Out” were delivered with punkish abandon. “The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon” was given a heavy, Zeppelin-like veneer, and “Turquoise Jewelry” found Immergluck delivering the trombone riff without any trombone.
The inspired lunacy reached its peak with “Tusk”, the sole selection from the new album. The song devolved into a noisy game of dueling samplers, with Lowery and Segel both crouched over their machines, typing frantically as sound loops spun out from the speakers. Krummenacher accompanied the samples by reading from what sounded like a book on dog training. As the noise wound down, Lowery looked around and commented, “That wasn’t so bad.”