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“Take off that jumpsuit, you look like Grace Slick…” Camper Van Beethoven Celebrates 25 Years at the Fillmore, San Francisco

Nostalgia is a funny forces us to examine the life we are currently mired in while at the same time celebrating the one we abandoned. Now, fill a room full of people who are experiencing similar existential quandaries, add alcohol and other substances and finish it off with the soundtrack of their youth. San Francisco's legendary Fillmore on Saturday June 28th hosted such an event. Honoring their 25th Anniversary, Santa Cruz's Camper Van Beethoven played a glorious 2hour plus set, singing "songs of the fecundity of life and love."

A reunited Catheads got things off to a rollicking start. The Catheads are one of San Francisco’s forgotten gems and were clearly excited about playing the Fillmore. Their sound can be a bit hard to classify, given the fact the there are four distinct songwriters in the band. Songs range from Country to Folk to Rock with a psychedelic bent. There is a loose vibe inherent in their music, peppered with lush harmonies. For me, the Catheads always seemed to encapsulate all that was great about the San Francisco music scene back in the late 80’s to early 90’s. They were at once the engineers of highly crafted pop songs containing a foggy beauty reminiscent of their hometown, while live, they acted more like conductors on a runaway train struggling to stay on the tracks.

Drummer Melanie Clarin’s radiant smile proved contagious as I looked around at the hauntingly familiar faces enjoying this rare occurrence. The band benefited from the good will projected from the audience but not from the sound mix. The mix was muddy, leaving the guitars buried. Sam Babbit’s creative, meandering guitar lines were almost inaudible. De facto front man Mark Zandedera broke a string, had trouble imbibing “fake” champagne, and suffered from general discombobulation. I caught a woman’s eyes, lost in the strains of the Catheads kind of college radio hit “Upside Down”, I felt exactly as I had some twenty years earlier. It was as if nothing had changed for those few fleeting moments.

There I was, body pressed up against the stage, an underage teenager at the Berkeley Square, standing in awe of the four musicians on stage. My friends and I were painfully self aware, trying to blend in with the “adults” as they flirted and tossed back magic elixirs. I studied the musicians as they went about self-consciously setting up their own equipment on stage. We would factor in watching this pre-show ritual into our arrival time. It added to our anticipation of the event we spent all month fantasizing about. “Do you think they’ll play Crash Landing?” I asked my friend Dennis, momentarily knocking him out of his fixed gaze on the pretty drummer as she set up her kit. When the houselights dimmed we all shot up to attention. Looking side to side to see if everyone else was as excited as I was, I noticed a girl looking over at us. She gave a nod and a knowing smile and I was hooked. The music started and off I drifted.

The ghost of Rock shows past had deposited me back onto the Fillmore floor. The cruel joke being that everyone was not frozen in time but rather wore its ravages instead. I wonder if the Catheads knew then that they were inspiring me to don a guitar and pen my own tunes. I wonder if they knew how important their music was to my still developing sense of self. I knew that women dancing across from me understood.

Camper Van Beethoven took the stage to a near sell out crowd. Eager to share the amazing accomplishment of a Silver Anniversary, the audience was tingling with anticipation. As Jonathan Segel bowed through the intro riff of “Pictures of Matchstick Men” on his violin, the crowd let out the collective exhales of a joint they had been sharing for the past 25years. I watched as a father in front of me told his teenage son of the subtleties of holding ones ground on a crowded concert floor. “Get your elbows wide,” he said. I laughed to myself thinking how things had changed since the first time I saw CVB on the campus of UC Santa Cruz back in 1988.

It was Kresge Day; a music and arts festival held by one of the art colleges nestled in the woody hollow of the University of Santa Cruz. We were visiting my friend Pete who was attending school there. I had no idea who Camper Van Beethoven were but he assured us they were “trippy” and that we would like them. “Oh, and take these…” he said, as he handed us a handful of psychedelic mushrooms procured for the day’s events.

I remember bubble machines, the smell of patchouli, smiles given freely by pretty hippie girls in patchwork dresses, and that same melody reverberating off the stucco dormitories. I was transfixed and sniffing around the rabbit hole that would lead me to this spot in front of the stage. Here beneath CVB’s leader David Lowry’s feet, as he strummed his guitar on the stage of the Fillmore.

The members of Camper Van Beethoven have always been stellar musicians. This skilled musicianship was on full display during “Eye of Fatima Parts 1 & 2”. The band coalesced around Victor Krummenacher’s pulsing bass line. Again, I found myself being transported back in time.

Here I was sitting on the edge of my friend Allan’s bed. He stood in front of me bass guitar in hand. His nimble fingers matching the notes that poured out from the boom box speakers in perfect time with the recording of, the then brand new Camper record, Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart. I would ask him to play “Eye of Fatima” over and over, as I marveled at the deep, jaunty melody driving the song. These were the days when I was still mystified by my musical heroes. It was as if Allan had cracked some kind of code my clumsy fingers would never be able to decipher.

The funny thing is that this connection to the past doesn’t mean that the band hasn’t continued to evolve. New recordings, like 2005’s highly acclaimed New Roman Times, are unmistakably CVB but also possess a maturity and depth of experience that are absent from their earlier recordings. Live these songs provide a tonic to the lyrical playfulness of earlier songs like “The Day That Lassie Went To The Moon” or “Club Med Sucks”.

It is perhaps in the lyrics that most of my memories associated with the band are ineluctably tied. Principal songwriter David Lowery, in both Camper Van Beethoven and his other band Cracker, has always been gifted at creating a cinematic “mis en scene” with his lyrics. The characters that populate his songs are from all walks of life (usually fringe characters with dreams bigger than the small towns they inhabit). The qualities that I have most appreciated in Lowery as a writer are his sharp eye for detail and his economy. Anyone who has ever written before knows that this balance is hard to strike.

His growling delivery can snarl or long, make snarky asides or philosophical observations, soothe or condemn, all with honesty and aplomb. Nowhere is that more evident than in the song “All Her Favorite Fruit”, off the amazing Key Lime Pie. This song has always been a live favorite. And the crowd gathered at the Fillmore became almost reverent as the band began the slow build of the opening measures. The interplay between Segel and lead guitarist Greg Lisher has always been a hallmark of the CVB sound. “Fruit” typifies the scale based lead work of Lisher, an inventive and under appreciated talent in Rock music. As Lowery delivered the opening stanzas under the changing colors of lights cast down from above…

“I drive alone, home from work
And I always think of her
Late at night I call her
But I never say a word…”

My mind wandered, finally settling on my first love Michelle. We moved in together around the time Key Lime Pie was released. I would play “All Her Favorite Fruit” and make her listen as I acted out the lyrics. I knew she was not as convinced as I was that these words were pure, revelatory genius. But she humored me, in fact isn’t that what young love provides, the abundant capacity to humor one another. I could she her slipping her dress “over her head and let(ting) it fall to the floor…” The hugeness of young love spilled from the speakers in her bedroom and washed me up on the Fillmore’s then, distant shore.

CVB has always mined many musical genres and folded in these diverse and seemingly combative musical styles into their music. When I first discovered the band, I was initially drawn to their “hippie punk” aesthetic. Songs like “Take the Skinheads Bowling” and their cover of Black Flag’s “Wasted” managed to be punk without all the familiar posturing. But as I listened to their first two records on Pitch-A-Tent, I was exposed to Country, Eastern European waltzes, Polka, and Free-Jazz freak-outs. They were the gateway drug into worlds I had yet to discover.

“Sad Lover’s Waltz” had the crowd lolling back and forth in ¾ time and “Border Ska” transformed the Fillmore into a Polish dancehall. Few bands are able to navigate this kind of musical terrain without feeling schlocky. Fewer still have as dedicated a representation of these genres. The Fillmore was transformed into a honky tonk, the carpeted floor dissolving in sawdust.

My wife and I watched the show from the long bar off to the side of the stage, I thought about how influential CVB was in my own development as a musician. Launching into the opening chords of “Good Guys and Bad Guys” my fingers instinctively mimicked A, D, and E.

Now I was sitting on the edge of my bed, bottom bunk, with a beat up hand-me-down acoustic guitar. Wondering if the rigormortis in my fingers would ever subside? Laughing to myself, and feeling subversive as I sung the line, “…just get high while the radio’s on…” My younger brother would walk into the room we shared and shake his head, silently saying “give it up already.” The prevailing family doctrine of accepting one’s lot in life and daring not to dream already perverting his developing perspective, while I strummed against the household tide.

Leaning against the bar strumming on my pant leg, I began to notice the effects the alcohol and marijuana were having on the forty somethings in attendance. We watched as people stumbled past the bar and into one another. Surefootedness gave way to widened steps that suddenly crossed diagonally, ending in a half pirouette. Nostalgia will also make you forget that you are no longer twenty-five.

More standouts from the set included “Turquoise Jewelry”, a raucous shuffle with shades of the Big Band era in its arrangement. An amazing rendition of “One of These Days”, also off Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, followed. This song has always been one of the more encapsulating CVB songs. It brings together a hooky guitar melody backed by a ska rhythm. Segel builds a swirling violin part, which gives way to a pensive vocal delivery. The band locks into a tight groove that highlights drummer Frank Fanaro (alum of Cracker, Joey Ramone, and the Dictators). His ability to effortlessly negotiate between the varied styles and meters of CVB’s set is a thing of beauty to watch.

Wrapped up in the moment I looked to my wife Halli, who was also rapturously enjoying herself, swaying in time with the music. This had been another of the songs I used to associate with Michelle. But after I hard sold Halli on seeing Camper at the Bowery Ballroom when we first moved to New York City several years ago, the song began to reflect my feelings and devotion to her.

We were homesick after moving across the country and missing friends and family in the Bay Area, when I saw the listing for Cracker and CVB in the Village Voice. My excitement sending me into full “pitch” mode, as I began laying the foundation for why this show (on top of the hundreds of others I’ve evangelized) was the show we needed to see. I‘m amazed that after 10 years my wife hasn’t gone numb to my pleas. As soon as they hit the Bowery Ballroom stage she instantly understood. She saw and heard, what I saw and heard. It felt as if old friends had come to visit. And I was glad to be able to share this band with her.
New York City can be a lonely and isolating place. You get caught up in the constant, relentless grind. Until that moment when Camper hit the stage it felt as if I had been holding my breath my entire time out there. The music reminded me to exhale. I could feel myself relax as a sense of calm took over. The people in the room began to feel familiar. Stepping out into the night and into a cab after the show, the city seemed less cold, more embracing.

Since then we have seen CVB and Cracker several times, often at her behest. So when I caught her singing the words, moving beneath the chandeliers of the Fillmore Ballroom, I no longer felt nostalgic for the past. I was enjoying the present, this moment.

As the set was coming to a close, the band in the throes of Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive”, I peered over my shoulder to see Melanie Clarin dancing with friends behind me. Admittedly she was an early crush. I wanted to go up to her and tell her how much the Catheads songs meant to me. How good it was to see them one more time. But I was overtaken with the same shyness that had been hibernating inside of me for twenty-five years. I was star struck, just as I had been the first time I saw her behind the kit at the Berkeley Square. I mustered a feeble smile when she noticed me looking at her in mid dilemma. I turned back to the stage and rejoined the freak out unfolding in front of me. The memories and feelings associated with them rippled through me like a gentle creek.

Judging by those at the Fillmore celebrating Camper’s Silver anniversary, this is a welcome diversion from the realities of parenthood and middle age. To quote Lowery, “And life is grand, and I will say this at the risk of falling from favor, from those of you, who have appointed yourselves to expect us to say something darker...” For one night we can all pretend the world is not as dark a place as we know it to be. We can go back to that imagined, simpler time. We can take comfort in the fact that at one time we were carefree and cool..

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