Take Cracker, Camper Van Beethoven and a bunch of their friends, plop them down in Pioneertown for a couple of weekend nights, give it a name—like, oh, The Second Annual Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven Campout—and see what happens.
Here’s what happened:
Friday, Sept. 8
The first day—evening, actually—kicked off with Pappy & Harriett’s house band the Thrift Store All-Stars, who play a loose, rootsy set that would be the highlight of most other fests. They’re followed by X’s John Doe, who actually released several stellar Americana-tinged solo albums. His smoky tenor is as powerful as ever, evidenced by his take on the old Woody Guthrie tune “Vigilante Man,” which fit just right, Doe an obvious descendant of the pride of Okemah. Great stuff, powerfully delivered by a master.
Local, Joshua Tree-born Gram Rabbit follow. You’d think they’d be nervous sandwiched between living legend Doe and headliners Camper Van Beethoven, but they tear down the house with their weird, beautiful psychedelic country music. They have a keen sense of the theatrical that involves dancing rabbits, masks, and spools of piped-in sci-fi narration. Their singer, Jesika Von Rabbit, is a born star, with charisma that smolders.
CVB have their groove on from the first note, shredding like slow-roasted pork. Their music is as out-there as ever, a unique blend of Balkan reels, punk polka, electric fiddle and grooving rock. Through it all, Redlands-reared David Lowery, one of American popular music’s most respected (yet underrated) front men/songwriters, shines, and the band is tighter than a torch-welded oil drum. By the end, the crowd is as ecstatic as a gaggle of over-caffeinated children, and as drained as zombies.
Saturday, Sept. 9
To frame the uniqueness of the Cookout, the over-arching themes of community, and the approachability of the bands, I need to mention the lunch I have at Pappy and Harriet’s just before the beginning of Saturday’s bill. At one table is Neko Case pecking away at a salad. At another, members of Gram Rabbit are taking a communal repast. Various and sundry Cracker and CVB members are settled about the hall. Many stars love to put on the “just folks” air, but here is the real deal.
Saturday night starts with a linked set from three CVB alumni – Jonathan Segal, Greg Lisher and Victor Krummenacher. The trio commit themselves admirably, proving that Lowery is not the only songwriting talent in the Cracker/CVB family. Krummenacher is particularly impressive, showing a keen storytelling sense with his songs.
Alt-chanteuse Neko Case follow, and despite some minor technical issues, Case and her band reach peaks of expression that have the crowd alternately hushed and roaring for more. Her voice, especially when entwined with backup singer, Kelly Hogan, is the most powerful and emotive instrument of the weekend.
Cracker wrapped everything up with a wonderful closing set. The band has always been less experimental and more song-centered than CVB, and those songs stood out here as much as their muscular, expressive playing. Old favorites like “Eurotrash Girl” and “Low” are laid out with aplomb, but if anything, it’s Cracker’s new material from their recently-released Greenland album that impresses the most. There’s a world-weary wisdom and economy of craft, punctuating the fact that Cracker is better than ever.
The Campout proved that there’s no replacing the good ol’ meat-and-potatoes essentials of great, artfully-performed songs. As David Lowery said more than once on Saturday, “See you next year!” Yes, indeed.