Camper Van Beethoven at the Middle East Downstairs

Camper Van Beethoven at the Middle East Downstairs

One of a long list of bands I had heard of throughout the years, but never got around to seeing, Camper Van Beethoven has been around since the early 80s (they celebrated their 25th Anniversary in 2008), performing their unique wicked-eclectic style of genre-fusing… well, I suppose one can loosely call it rock, for the sake of referring to it as something, though it’s actually many different, wondrous things.


It was actually at one of Treat Her Right’s shows at Toad, I was speaking with a fan of theirs, sharing our dismay at how insular and clique-ish Boston’s audiences are. There are your indie rock fans, your alt-country fans, your world music fans, etc., and while you’ll get the occasional “crossover”, there doesn’t seem to be as porous a border as one would like. Punk fans go to punk shows, classical music aficionados see the BSO, mainstream rock fans go to the Garden or Great Woods. Why I so love a band like Camper is because they’re wonderful emissaries for the removal of genre-specific straitjackets that can restrict an artist or band’s creativity, as well as stunt the growth of their audience. Indeed, the audience tonight was a mix of young and older, and the place was packed from the start and stayed that way, from CvB’s musical cornucopia to their offshoot Cracker’s more straight-ahead indie rock/alt-country leanings.


I had been enthusiastically encouraged to attend by my resident 60’s hippy/college DJ friend Victor, and I owe him a sincere debt of gratitude. From psychedelic space music, to something that sounded like Middle Eastern celebrants at a Jewish wedding, to the absolutely gorgeous country-dirge of “O Death”, to another favorite upon first hearing, “All Her Favorite Fruit”. For those of you as unfamiliar with their music as I was prior to this show, it’s a dreamy meandering laced with violin and the most surreal lyrics, “She serves him mashed potatoes; And she serves him peppered steak, with corn; Pulls her dress up over her head; Lets it fall to the floor; And does she ever whisper in his ear all her favorite fruit; And all the most exotic places they are cultivated…” To my ear, there’s something distinctly Pink Floyd-ish about this song. Lovely.


“One Of These Days”, with its interesting melding of a soft, reggae style guitar and Eastern European violin (and lovely lyrics), led into the alt-country “Sweethearts”, and then a crazy spaghetti western meets 70s spy movie moment (I’m guessing CvB’s big fans will probably know what I mean, despite my nutty description). The “war set” follows with the ska/Middle Eastern “Might Makes Right” and country-esque ballad “New Roman Times”. “She Divines Water” was just or soon after this – another very pretty song with the wonderful lyrics, “How can I believe that everything in this world is going to be fine? How can I believe that everything in this world has its place and time? When I lay down to sleep, I feel the world spin. Slightly off axis, it’s shaped like a fig. And when I lie next to you, I shiver and shake. You tell me you love me, I dream I’m awake.”


Toward the end of their astonishing set were two musical novelettes. There was the college radio hit trilogy – their Status Quo cover “Pictures Of Matchstick Men”, “Take The Skinheads Bowling”, and “The Day Lassie Went to the Moon” – by the end of which my friend was in a state of bliss somewhere just beyond nirvana. Which they followed with their punk set – some great and crazy slow-then-frenetic thing I don’t know the name of, The Clash’s “White Riot”, and Black Flag’s “Wasted”.


Absolutely loved them. For anyone who doesn’t have any of their recordings and would like a good introduction to their music, I’ll give a quick plug for Popular Songs Of Great Enduring Strength And Beauty, an 18-track collection of their music from 1985-1990, released to coincide with their 25th anniversary.



After a brief intermission, Cracker came out. By way of explanation, I must cite extreme fatigue (quick trip to Connecticut and back, followed by the Wrens the night before and work that morning) and weather-related anxiety of the impending blizzard (which turned out to be completely warranted), as the reasons why I didn’t stay for Cracker’s entire set. But I did remain long enough to hear David Lowery’s bizarre and quite lengthy introduction (it involved a grandmother’s request during a show in Germany, German folklore traditions and The Christmas Whore), which then led into the delightful “Euro-Trash Girl”. I enjoy their quirky, twangy alt-country-rock quite a bit and as I’m listening to things now, I recognize several songs I guess I never quite attributed to them – so utterly typical of me, sorry. I will say that the audio levels at the Middle East seemed to increase exponentially as the night went on. Even so, I’m sure the rest of the evening was as fantastic as the first part, so if anyone out there is angry with me for bailing early, please send me your Cracker review and I’ll add it on.



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