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Camper Van Beethoven

(17 Feb 2004: Crystal Ballroom — Portland, Oregon)


When you go to see a cult band from your college days, a band gone for ten years, it’s hard not to indulge in moody sentiment. And then there’s the schizoid nature of the rock ‘n’ roll reunion tour. Sentimentality and cynicism (it is, you know, all about the money); emotional turmoil and automaton setlists.


Everywhere I look, there are balding white men steeped in their sweaty joy. The air is addictive, the band is playing tighter than you might think possible—but I can hardly stay here. How can you watch one of your favorite college bands reunite, and not fall into the ruthless suck of revisiting your former life? An automatic reflex—the ability to deny and rationalize the fact that time is passing - is jerking me around. Repeatedly.


So, a million times over, high-fives for the middle part of the set. There’s nothing to do but jump and stomp and scream along. The anthems of surfers and punk rockers and high-school geeks (“Take the Skinheads Bowling” and “Skinhead Stomp” and the Clash’s “White Riot”) bring us together in a selfless riotous sing-along. Those vocal-driven loser rock rants make us a mosh pit, put us on stage, make us believe we’re in the band.


When CVB reunited last year, 99.9% of the world slept through it. Live performances went undetected. The snarky boys from Santa Cruz historically attracted the smaller numbers, the fringes, with their punk rock leanings, Russian folk fetishes, and heavy metal daydreams.


Back then, we were all losers, but the next card coming was an ace, and CVB was our secret.


The original core members—David Lowery (vocals), Victor Krummenacher (bass/vocals), Jonathan Segal (violin/keyboards/vocals), and Greg Lisher (guitarist)—have swallowed their collective pride and buried the hatchet. What will they play? How will they sound? Will they melt down on stage? It turns out that tonight’s set is a mish-mash from the band’s five records, mostly tracks from Key Lime Pie and Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, the band’s releases on Virgin Records.


David Lowery is stage right; he handles most of the vocals. But Krummenacher seems like the band’s unspoken leader, confident and grounding, his bass lines define the band’s sound. Think of The Who’s John Entwistle, or R.E.M.‘s Mike Mills.


Revisiting the 1980s is a mixed bag. Camper Van Beethoven may not intend it, but they’re forcing us to wake the fuck up. Again. Admit our own mediocrity. Admit that the Reagan-Bush years are still with us. Admit that we’re aging GenXers, whatever that means. So this is fun, and not much fun, all at the same time.


Here’s the thing about subversive surfers who rock (with Santa Cruz in their veins and a back catalog of odd hummable tunes). You remember exactly where you were when you heard “The Day That Lassie Went to the Moon”. Or “Tina”. Or “Where the Hell is Bill?”. You remember who you were dating, what you were listening to, who you thought you were.


At the beginning of the evening, David Lowery is on stage with his other band, Cracker. His cowboy hat is turned-down, his face is hidden. (It’s worth mentioning that violinist/keyboardist Jonathan Segal and bassist Victor Krummenacher join the band for their entire set.) Lowery’s singing his radio-friendly “Low”—the one with that clouded chorus (“Hey, hey, hey/ like being st-ohh-ned?”)—and the crowd moves between ambivalence and celebratory recognition. There are two audiences inside of this venue.


Older fans thumb their noses at the commercially viable material. They look bored. And the Grateful Dead contingent seems to depress them, the hard-cores, old enough to remember Reagan getting shot. Cracker resonates with some slice of the crowd. Friends two-step, spilling their beer, slapping each other on the backs.


I remember seeing Camper Van Beethoven perform before they broke up. It was 1989. Smart-aleck musicians on stage (screaming with over-inflated punctuation, “I… Was… So… Waaaaaasted…. I was wasted!”) clashed against the backdrop of a room that felt like church, on a campus that felt distinctly Ivy League. Students ran the university’s public radio station and spun Key Lime Pie regularly. Someone close to me had just died.


And tonight, as we’re filtering out of the venue after the second encore, I eavesdrop on the couple next to me. “Remember our friend,” she says to him, maybe he’s her husband, “remember how he lived in a house with Camper in California?” She looks pensive. “He was always pissed off that they made it. He still talks about it.” And the fellow to my right is saying, “I remember that road trip, in New Mexico, I remember listening to them and falling asleep as we drove down that canyon.” Me? I’m thinking about an old friend. He sent me a mix tape when he heard I was sad. He was living in Paris. He named the tape Songs to Be Happy To.” The third song on the first side was “Tania”.


I mention all of this, because seeing Camper Van Beethoven now, in 2004, is both intoxicating and scrambling. I feel the shadows of a prankster. I feel my indexed memory banks being reshuffled. Something tells me I’m not alone.


And like the cowpunk cerebral jesters they are, this is the bum deal Camper Van Beethoven offers. You’re elated. You’re transported back in time. You’re old. You don’t talk to the mix tape guy anymore. And music still excites you.


If you’ve got the stomach for it, see for yourself.

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