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Now You See 'Em: For a reunion show at the Catalyst, Cracker morphs into Camper Van Beethoven and back again.

Take the Crackers Camping

Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven come together for a reunion show at the Catalyst and a look at Santa Cruz past and present

By Bruce Willey

IF MUSIC IS the perfect rusty vehicle for retrospection, then Camper Van Beethoven is the perfect band for Santa Cruz. Before corporate interests huffed stale breath into the holes created by the earthquake, before dive bars turned into sports bars, before UC-Santa Cruz turned into any other UC, before alternative music turned into Safeway music and before Camper Van Beethoven broke up in 1990, Santa Cruz was eclectic, experimental, non-conforming, ingenious, unique and weird. Just like Camper Van Beethoven.

With lively swatches of bluegrass, punk, Middle Eastern, hippie, Mexican Top 40, blues, Chinese and folk, Camper Van Beethoven rolled musical elements around until they all morphed into some kind of crooked rock & roll all the band's own. A three-song rock block could, in Camper Van Beethoven's clever hands, bound through a klezmer beat, pastiche into Beatles-eque backward masking and then erode into a chorus about Lassie going to the moon.

Ten years after the band's bristly break-up below the Arctic Circle in Sweden, Camper Van Beethoven partially returns to the Catalyst on Wednesday (Feb. 9). Chris Pederson, the drummer, now lives in Australia and can't make the gig.

"It's not exactly a reunion," says Greg Lisher, the shy, soft-spoken lead guitarist, the only member who still lives in Santa Cruz. "It's more just to see what the past has wrought, and going from there. I'm happy and surprised it's happening at all."

This spliced-together Camper Van Beethoven plays a mini-tour of the West with Cracker, kicking off with a warm-up at Cappy and Harriet's Pioneertown Palace in the Mojave desert--a bar owned by Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven lead singer David Lowery. The tour ends with two dates at San Francisco's Slim's, with a stop in their former hometown in between.

The "reunion" wouldn't have taken place except that Lowery is putting out two compilation records, one for Camper Van Beethoven, the other for Cracker. He asked Camper violinist Jonathan Segel and bassist Victor Krummenacher to come out to Richmond, Va., to mix old tapes and possibly record new tracks. They agreed and soon decided to expand the idea to include a mini-tour with Cracker. Or, as Krummenacher calls it, "Cracker Van Beethoven."

Formed in Redlands in 1983, the band moved to Santa Cruz to go to college, releasing in 1985 a full-length debut, Telephone Free Landslide Victory, and hitting college radio with "Take the Skinheads Bowling." The quartet put out two more LPs and a couple of EPs on their own Pitch a Tent label before signing to Virgin in 1988.

Between albums, Camper toured almost nonstop. It was rare to have a Santa Cruz sighting of the band, whether on the street or in concert. Tim John, a now-deceased groupie who used to follow Camper Van Beethoven religiously (once riding a busted three-speed bicycle over the hill to San Jose for a show) recalled that they smelled strange from so many days on the road. It could have been the band--or it could have been the large amount of decaying tofu John threw during shows to make Segel slip on stage.

When the members of Camper Van Beethoven went their separate ways, they also went divergent, critically well-received and busy solo ways. Lisher, Krummenacher and Pederson started Monks of Doom. Segel put out some notable records. And Lisher currently has a new solo album, Hand Down the Wire, set for release in three weeks. Lowery, of course, formed and still performs with Cracker.

THEIR REUNION SHOWS, a culmination of the past and present, should prove interesting and a bit unpredictable. The opening band, which two weeks before the Catalyst show didn't have a name, features Lisher, Segel and Krummenacher, as well as former-Grant Lee Buffalo drummer Joey Peters and ex-King Missile bassist Chris Xefos. After the opener, the plan is for Cracker to play a short set, transform into Camper Van Beethoven for six or seven songs and then turn back into Cracker to close the show.

"This is portentous thinking, though. Anything could happen," Lisher says quietly, adding that he looks forward to playing the older material. "It was hard to adjust, coming back to Santa Cruz after being on tour for so many years then doing, in comparison, less work musically every night."

Though he now works at a relaxed local art gallery, he can still make a guitar solo the stomping, whooping, spiritual thing that it's supposed to be. There isn't a better under-appreciated guitar player on the planet.

Unlike the mild commercial success of Camper Van Beethoven and the others' various solo careers, Cracker made it big. Taco Bell plays "Low" from the band's second album to improve the taste of their chalupas. Has such commercialism affected Lowery and Co.?

"I'm really happy Cracker made it big like they did," Lisher says. "David [Lowery] deserved it. You can't be in an underground band all your life. It starts to get old."

Lowery, who has indeed broken into the big time, lyrically muses back to his days in Santa Cruz: "Violent blooms of flower dresses and the afternoons that make you sleepy." This may be one more (of many) romantic views of this city, but those of us who have lived here for a while, who have ridden the Giant Dipper five times, can at least objectively agree that "From the top you can see Monterey, think about San Jose, though I know it's not that pleasant." There is rickety fondness in this moment right before dropping straight down, hands in the air and screaming; life in Santa Cruz is grand--and sometimes a quality nostalgic experience.

Camper Van Beethoven is gone, as are parts of Santa Cruz, but the essence of the band's music lives on. Just as Lowery sings on Cracker's Giant Dipper song--"Boy, you're looking back/Did I make you feel that sad?/I'm honestly flattered"--the music and the city have changed. But it's all good. A Camper Van Beethoven show, even if only six songs, won't turn Costco into the Laurel Street ice factory, prevent Borders from moving into 1200 Pacific Ave., resurrect the glorious old Avenue bar or bring up issues past, pleasant or otherwise. But it's a beloved revolutionary start.

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From the February 2-9, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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