Key Lime Pie & Kerosene Hat : Live

<img src="" alt=" " />The 'playing an album in its entirety' game doubled-up for a new high as Camper Van Beethoven played <i>Key Lime Pie</i> <u>and</u> Cracker played <i>Kerosene...
Key Lime Pie & Kerosene Hat

David LoweryEven as iTunes & internet downloading seems to have spelt the slow decline of the album, that anachronistic collection of songs on one physical recording has been coming back in the live setting, as bands far and wide do special ‘top-to-bottom’ shows, where they play a record in its entirety, first track to the last.  While not an entirely new idea, it’s really been picking up steam lately – possibly because the people who listened to those records, back when there were actual records, are now old enough & successful enough to pay extra for the nostalgia kick of hearing the entire album (they’re also good ways to sell & tour off of a deluxe edition re-release of said record…).  Instead of just hoping that a band plays the songs of theirs that you love, and risking them playing those that you don’t (usually their latest record), you know the set list going into an ‘album’ show.  Bands don’t pick their obscure records, but instead tour their best-known & best-loved breakthroughs, such as The Lemonheads playing It’s a Shame About Ray in 2008 (QRO review) or Weezer playing Weezer (Blue Album) just last month (QRO review).  Of course, albums aren’t usually as long as a set, meaning that the band has to either add material after playing the record that everyone came there for (like The Lemonheads did), risking wearing out your welcome, or playing the other stuff before it (as Weezer did), risking an impatient crowd.  Or you could double-down on the concept & number of bands, as Camper Van Beethoven & Cracker did at Highline Ballroom in New York on Friday, January 14th, with Camper playing Key Lime Pie in its entirety, followed by Cracker playing Kerosene Hat in its entirety.

If you somehow don’t know, the two acts are deeply intertwined, as Camper singer/guitarist David Lowery formed Cracker after the break-up of Camper.  Camper reunited around 2000, with new drummer Frank Funaro, who now also plays drums in Cracker.  Plus multi-band, multi-instrumentalist David Immerglück (also, oddly, of The Counting Crows) often plays in both.  So at least three people would be on the stage for both acts.  And Camper & Cracker have played together a great deal, David Immerglückboth in their annual ‘Camp Out’ festival in southern California, as well as on tour together last year – which included going to SXSW together (sharing the bill in their infamous, ill-fated ‘official show’ – QRO recap), and coming to Highline Ballroom (QRO venue review) last January (QRO live review – the January before that, Camper played its twenty-fifth anniversary tour – QRO live review – and between those two Januarys, Cracker played Highline – QRO photos).  Taking the same line-up to the same venue almost exactly one year later could have meant the same exact show (and there were certainly a lot of the same fans at this show as in January ’10, including one man with a sweet Sam Elliott-esque bushy mustache), but Camper & Cracker flipped the script by touring Key Lime Pie & Kerosene Hat.


Camper Van Beethoven

Usually when bands play an album in its entirety, it’s one of their early ones, often their debut or breakthrough release (like Weezer (Blue Album) or It’s a Shame About Ray).  But Camper Van Beethoven played their last original studio album (not counting their 2004 return, New Roman Times), Key Lime Pie.  Of course, it’s not like KLP isn’t an old record – “written in 1988, and some of 1989.”  But it’s also their best, and certainly the one most fitting for the ‘play an album in its entirety live’ set-up.  Camper’s mix of indie, rock, folk, jam, ska, punk, and more was & is hard to pigeonhole, born of the early eighties Santa Cruz jambalaya, and the mix was a bit rough and confusing on their early records, but got more & more honed as time went on.  It all reached a pinnacle with Key Lime Pie, cohesive and powerful without leaving the Camper orbit.

It was also their last record before breaking up, giving it a slightly ominous, menacing air, which Frank Funarocarried over into the live performance.  It’s hard to see a Camper/Cracker performance and not wonder a bit about Lowery’s feelings on playing with both his old band & his new one, not to mention the opinions of members of both bands to the arrangement.  Camper did reunite for the Bush era, semi-concept New Roman Times, did a twenty-fifth anniversary tour two years ago, and toured with Cracker last year, so whatever issues there might have been certainly seem to have been settled.  But Lowery’s reticence on stage in Camper, especially when compared to when he’s on stage with Cracker, and the obvious tight bond he has with childhood friend/Cracker guitarist Johnny Hickman (who he knew before meeting the Camper folks at U.C. Santa Cruz), fuels speculation.

Victor KrummenacherHowever, such thoughts might only have enhanced the performance of Key Lime Pie, giving just a bit more weight and power to the record.  And whatever the Lowery-ness of it all, the album/evening opened with the instrumental “Opening Theme”, where the singer/guitarist is the last to join in on the piece, whose focus on the fiddle-esque violin of Jonathan Segel and plucking guitar from Greg Lisher makes it some sort of alternate history theme to the Civil War documentary mini-series (perhaps if California had won the war).  The theme didn’t get any cheerier or modern with “Jack Ruby”, evoking the still-and-forever-unresolved feelings America has on the final chapter of the Kennedy assassination.  The whole air made the straight-faced mocking of Reagan era espionage “Sweethearts” not as bright as on record – but perhaps that’s because it was written & recorded back when the ‘Evil Empire’ was receding, and Osama Bin Laden was still our friend in the liberation of Afghanistan.  Thus the out-and-out anti-hero white trash comedy of “When I Win the Lottery”, really more of a Cracker song than a Camper song, just wasn’t quite as funny, and it was a little harder to rock to “(I Was Born In a Laundromat)”.

Jonathan SegelThe sad “Borderline”, with the ska-ish up-stroke guitar, and the uncertainly bright “Light From a Cake” carried the set to its emotional high-point in “June” and “All Her Favorite Fruit”.  Epic from a band that doesn’t do epic, “June” was even more intimate and more encompassing than on Key Lime Pie, while “All Her Favorite Fruit” somehow managed to improve on an ultra-compelling recorded delivery that might be one of the best songs ever.  After that, an instrumental “Interlude” really was needed, with then “Flowers” playing like a mirror-alternate “Cake”, more certain in its optimism than it actually sounded.  “The Humid Press of Days” finished the transition to a wider, full-complement Camper exemplified in “Pictures of Matchstick Men” (which has the greatest indie-violin, ever – sorry Alexandra Lawn – QRO interview) and “Come On Darkness”, which welcomed the dark while also lighting more than one candle to fight it, in humor and in honesty.

Camper Van Beethoven playing “June” live at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on January 14th, 2011:

Greg LisherBut the final track to Key Lime Pie didn’t mean the end of Camper Van Beethoven’s set.  With nothing more than an uttered, “That was Key Lime Pie,” the band launched into “Eyes of Fatima” from the preceding Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart.  And, since it’s practically contractually obligated of them to play it during a set, the band closed with the still-funny-after-all-these-years “Take the Skinheads Bowling” off of 1985 debut Telephone Free Landslide Victory, with Lisher leaning into Immerglück’s mike to join him during the chorus.




Choosing the final (first edition) Camper Van Beethoven record to play also allowed for an easier transition to Cracker, which played one of their earliest records, meaning that there was only a four-year distance between the two albums.  1993’s Kerosene Hat wasn’t Cracker’s first – that was the previous year’s Cracker – but it is their most popular, and a natural choice to play in its entirety, mixing sad & comic like Key Lime Pie, with a rawer, more rock, less country style than later records (though their most recent, Sunrise In the Land of Milk & HoneyQRO review – is something of a return to that early sound).  It is a record with less players on stage, just Lowery, Hickman, Funaro, bassist Sal Maida, and back-up multi-instrumentalist Kenny Margolis – David Immerglück began the set on stage as well, but had little to do and left after a few songs.

Kerosene Hat‘s ‘commercial hits’ are bunched at the start of the album, beginning with opener “Low” (which had actress/personality Sandra Bernhard in the video) and “Get Off This”, but it’s been nearly twenty years since they were on MTV, and didn’t feel like the ‘popular songs’ of Kerosene.  Besides, “Movie Star” in between them was, if anything, better received – but how could it not, with Hickman’s pressing-yet-catchy guitar and Lowery’s lyrics about headless movie stars and police chiefs who are closeted anarchists?  Hickman got special love from the crowd (many shouts of “Johnny!”), as there might not be a rock guitarist out there who better looks the part than he (QRO interview) – gleaming white shirt & pants, a southwestern mixture of country & Mexican, goatee, completely into it & completely enjoying it.

Johnny HickmanAfter they got off “Get Off This”, Cracker/Kerosene Hat entered the sad stage, starting with the title song, an excellently heartbreaking song that really shouldn’t come after “Get Off This” – an instance of playing track-by-track hurting the set list, but oh well.  “Take Me Down To the Infirmary” retained its just right level of country-twang, effective without being maudlin.  Cracker didn’t stick completely to the Kerosene track order, switching up “Sweet Potato” and “Sick of Goodbyes”, a wise move that put the latter next to the similarly wry “Nostalgia”, before the great up-country/dirty rock “Sweet Potato” – that may have just been something special for the Big Apple, which is name-checked in “Potato”: “I went to New York City / Then I come right back / Everyone was cool there / Couldn’t get no slack / They see you in the paper / Seen you in the Voice / Think I’ll stay in Dixie / If I have my choice”.  Despite the actual kiss-off to the town, New York loved it (and probably not a lot of Village Voice readers in the older crowd…).

Cracker playing “Take Me Down to the Infirmary” live at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on January 14th, 2011:

Sal Maida“I Want Everything” brought back the heartbreak one more time, before Hickman took up lead vocals for his comic-twang “Lonesome Johnny Blues”.  “Let’s Go For a Ride” sped up to the rock, while “Loser” (actually a Grateful Dead cover, if you can believe it) story-told in relax, not convolution.  And Cracker didn’t forget about the bonus tracks, as one fan bellowed to remind them early in the set, before Lowery replied,

Don’t worry; we’re not going to fuck it up, because we’re professionals.  ‘Oh hey, let’s tell everybody we’re going to play the record, and then skip one of the songs…’  ‘Oh, we didn’t learn that one…’

And when that bonus track is the band’s most-loved, they better not forget it!  After the forty second interstitial mix of recorded sounds “Hi-Desert Meth Biker Lab” that preceded it on Kerosene (but skipping all the blank tracks), Cracker hit up the one, the only, “Euro-Trash Girl”.  If you don’t know “Euro-Trash Girl”, then you wouldn’t read this article, so it’s enough to say it was as awesome as always – with the house lights going on full blast to encourage the crowd to sing along to the title chorus.

There was still one more bonus track, “I Ride My Bike”, another live staple like “Euro-Trash”, because it gives the band a chance to jam, which they did in spades, extending it well far enough to give time for Immerglück, Krummenacher, Lisher, and Segel to return to the stage (Maida had to hand off his bass to Camper bassist Victor Krummenacher – unfortunately, only Ned’s Atomic Dustbin needs two bassists…) for a massive finish.

Even if both records were done, the crowd wasn’t done for the night, and got Hickman & Lowery to return to the stage.  They’ve performed Cracker sets as just a duo before (QRO live review) – it’s a cheaper way to tour – but at Highline they began to perform “I Sold the Arabs the Moon”, a new song from Lowery’s upcoming solo record, The Palace Guards (QRO review).  However, the first start was halted because Lowery was out of tune, and then a few verses into the second start, Lowery changed it up to the already-released “Friends”, saying, “You can all buy the record…”  He probably just wasn’t ready to do a new song live just yet (will he tour Palace – and with what set-up behind him?), and besides, Hickman’s ultra-hilarious anti-hero duet “Friends” (originally from his own solo record, Palmhenge, but also on Sunrise) is always welcome.

Johnny Hickman & David Lowery playing “Friends”, after an aborted attempt by Lowery to play the “I Sold the Arabs the Moon”, live at Highline Ballroom in New York, NY on January 14th, 2011:

At some point in the not-too-distant future, albums could very well go the way of the cassette tape, or only remain in limited existence for connoisseurs like actual records are today.  And sometime after that, the last music fan that remembers albums will go to that record store in the sky (note: record stores will be long gone by then).  But until then, album-lovers will be rewarded with top-to-bottom performances of their favorite albums in their entirety.  And they’d be hard-pressed to find a better record than Key Lime Pie or Kerosene Hat, or a better band than Camper Van Beethoven or Cracker.  And they’d never find a better back-to-back combo.

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