Could there be a better act to play the uniquely Northern California festival BottleRock than Santa Cruz’s own Camper Van Beethoven, with their conjoined twin band Cracker in tow?
After all, Camper is the group that on their 2013 album La Costa Perdida delivered “Northern California Girls,” perhaps the ultimate NorCal anthem—meaning an anthem that’s way too laid back to actually be an anthem.
“Right, it takes seven minutes to get where it’s going,” admits David Lowery, the frontman for both Camper and Cracker. “The drums come in a little bit like three times before they finally kick in about three-and-a-half minutes into the song.”
Lowery had already written his share of great California songs for both Camper and Cracker over the years—most recently, “Where Have Those Days Gone”—in which he mistakes Good Times’ astrologer Rob Brezsny for Thomas Pynchon in a bar in Mendocino County—but also “Big Dipper,” “Miss Santa Cruz County,” “Come On Darkness” and more.
But with his latest cycle, he’s outdone himself. While La Costa Perdida was a NorCal-influenced album, the songs on Camper’s latest, El Camino Real (which comes out June 3), are all set in, or otherwise related to, SoCal.
“We wrote these songs at the same time, then thematically we broke off most of the Northern California ones for the last album, and then kind of took these songs that were Southern California, and built another album around them, by adding another five songs or something like that,” says Lowery. “There’s kind of this opus going now, this theme going. There’s also a Cracker album, which comes out next year. It’s a double disc—one is Berkeley, one is Bakersfield. One is the punk side of the band, one is the country side.”
So, basically, four albums worth of California songs. And it all started because of…Joan Didion?
“I think it started with me and Victor [Krummenacher] and Jonathan [Segel] reading a bunch of Joan Didion,” confirms Lowery. He can’t remember which collection of essays specifically sparked it, but it would almost have to be the first section of Slouching Toward Bethlehem, in which Didion rips to shreds the “golden dream” of the Inland Empire—where Lowery, his Camper bandmates Krummenacher and Segel, and Cracker co-founder Johnny Hickman all grew up.
“Those essays really captured the feel of it. It’s not really that flattering about the area, but that’s sort of what people from the Inland Empire are proud of,” says Lowery. “There was actually some sort of referendum on a theme for the Inland Empire, like ‘Virginia is for Lovers’ or how California is the Golden State. And we all wrote in: ‘We will kick your ass.’”
The most noticeable difference between the two Camper albums is the overall feel—La Costa Perdida is more easygoing and gentle, while El Camino Real is darker and more intense, with a deep streak of paranoia that runs through songs like “The Ultimate Solution,” “It Was Like That When We Got Here” and “I Live In L.A.” Clearly, Lowery has very different views on the two halves of the state.
“Yeah, but I like ’em both,” says Lowey.
At the BottleRock festival in Napa May 30-June 1, Lowery’s bands will join an eclectic mix of five dozen other acts across four stages, including the Cure, OutKast, Weezer, LL Cool J, Robert Earl Keen, TV on the Radio and Smash Mouth. Some of those musicians have been around longer than Camper, while others benefited from the college-radio-to-gold-records trail that CVB and Cracker blazed in the ’80s and ’90s. It’s very likely, however, that Camper is the only band on the schedule that has been reunited longer than they were originally together. After recording their first album in Santa Cruz in 1985, the band imploded on a European tour in 1990. But after reforming in the early 2000s, they’ve been back together now for over a decade. Part of the reason, Lowery says, is that they all agreed to do the band on a more part-time basis, or at least do fewer tours, which puts less pressure on them as a group. But maybe it’s even simpler than that.
“Jonathan says it’s just because we’re not in our twenties,” says Lowery. “And it’s kind of true.”
Camper Van Beethoven and Cracker play BottleRock Napa, which runs May 30-June 1 at the Napa Calley Expo, 575 Third St., Napa. Tickets are $149 for single-day passes, $279 for a three-day pass, at bottlerocknapavalley.com. 877-435-9849.
BY RACHEL DOVEY
I never was punk. (Or “a punk?” Or “a punk rocker?” See, I don’t even know the terminology.) I’m 27, so by the time I started flirting with counter-culture, which admittedly was fairly late, it wasn’t really an option. So when I read John Roderick’s Seattle Weekly essay “Punk Rock is Bullshit,” I don’t take personal offense. I wasn’t there.
But I’m really tired of Roderick’s argument, which is the same one that gets pegged to my generation’s counter culture—whether you call it Indie or Hipster or DIY—all the time. It goes something like this: Privilege breeds idealism, idealism breeds entitlement (led by those smug guitarists, or, these days, banjo players), entitlement breeds complacency, complacency breeds not really doing anything to make the world a better place.
I’m sure this particular psychological circle-jerk happens. I’m sure it happens to me in that endless, anxious loop that is my overly idealistic brain. But I don’t at all buy this notion, that a stance of mainstream critique attached to youth-oriented movements is built to fail, at least not in the way Roderick is saying. Occupy was primarily youngish white people with college degrees, and although the gatherings may have fizzled, mainstream media outlets have started talking about wealth and income distribution in an entirely different way. Does the term “99 percent” get co-opted by the one percent to get demographic points? Absolutely. Has the movement and all of the discussion it generated radically shifted the way I—and others in my age group—understand money in politics, vote, participate in local government and consume? Absolutely.
Perhaps there’s a distinction to be made between political youth culture and art-based youth culture, and you can make it in the comments section if you’re kind enough to read this. But I don’t necessarily think there is. In my experience, banjos, flannel shirts, beards, home canning, even, dare I say it, that particularly hushed and introspective roots-blend that comes from our county’s northwest—these are not just pieces of a twee nostalgia-fest that the New York Times likes to take issue with. They’re expressions of something more—of a growing naturalism in response to fossil fuel extraction so heinous its been associated with earthquakes; of consumption habits that value local economics and relationships in commerce and re-use. Maybe we’re annoying sometimes, maybe we grew up reading “The Lorax” and we’re a little smug, maybe sometimes our overly-earnest aesthetics lead to truly terrible products that we sell on Etsy without realizing that they look like genitals. But call me an optimist, I don’t think we’re complacent—and I think punk helped pave the way.
Or maybe I’m just still young, and not tired and worn-down and hopeless enough yet.
On Friday night, the Sweetwater in Mill Valley hosted an intimate show with Sammy Hagar, lead singer from Van Halen; Bob Weir, guitarist and singer from the Grateful Dead, Furthur, and Rat Dog; Jonathan Wilson, Jeff Chimenti, and the Mooncussers (headed by CNBC Senior Economics Reporter Steve Liesman). Admission was $200, and for a good reason—the show was a benefit for the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps with support and rehabilitation of wounded veterans. Check out their work at woundedwarriorproject.org, and you’ll understand why Weir and Hagar support it.
The show had a fiery beginning with Sammy Hagar and the Mooncussers performing songs like Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35.” Hagar played a few of the songs on Bob Weir’s guitar, and later, when bringing Weir out to hand over the guitar, he announced that Bob was his neighbor and best friend. The close chemistry between Weir and Hagar was surprising considering their very different musical backgrounds. Weir took over solo duties for a few songs including “Black-Throated Wind” again followed by Jonathan Wilson joining in for “Big Boss Man,” and a personal favorite “Loser,” which Weir announced as a “sad song.” The show finished off with the whole band, minus Hagar, playing “Ramble On Rose” and “Mission In The Rain.”
For a full slideshow gallery of photos from the show, click here.
By Sara Bir
Johnny Ramone’s posthumous autobigraphy Commando: The Autobiography of Johnny Ramone fired up the second wind of Ramones fandom I’ve been yearning for. The book came out in April, but in a frugal move that I think Johnny would have approved of, I put a copy on hold at the library and waited it out.
Have you ever loved a band so much that you reached a bodily saturation point, whereupon listening to their songs felt unnecessary? There was so much Ramones flowing through my bloodstream I couldn’t absorb any more. I didn’t put my Ramones albums away, though for quite a few years I seldom played them. But simply thinking of myself as a Ramones fan (albeit one in hibernation) brought me soothing relief during low periods. If nothing else, I believed in all things Ramonesey, something that goes beyond a shelf of records and a gazillion performances and four guys (seven, actually) wearing leather jackets. I knew my auditory need for the Ramones would return someday, along with a renewed sense of pleasure, and it was Johnny’s book that did it.
Johnny is not my favorite Ramone. In a band of guys who are hard to love, Johnny is the hardest to love. He was the every-scowling tyrant, practical to the point of being unfeeling. The man we see in Johnny’s interview segments of End of the Century: Story of the Ramones appears to carry little sentimentality for his Ramones years, nor compassion for the difficulties of his former bandmates. I was anxious to read Commando, for fear it would only reinforce this image.
By Leilani Clark
With the death this week of Levon Helm, the world lost one of country-rock’s finest ambassadors. As drummer and singer for The Band, Helm was at the forefront of a musical movement, along with The Birds, Bob Dylan, Flying Burrito Brothers, Gram Parsons, and even Led Zeppelin at times, that combined, to fine effect, the rough-and-tumble feel of rock with the rangy, winsome tones of country music.
Fortunately, Sonoma County has produced its own country-rock ambassador in John Courage. On Saturday, April 21, at the Last Day Saloon, he celebrates the release of Don’t Fail Me Now, his first album to feature the bona fide, full-blown band known as John Courage and the Great Plains. A springtime release date is perfect for this smooth-toned, solidly produced album. Just like the black velvet drawing on the back by local artist Mica Jennings, the album is a prime soundtrack for poolside hangout sessions with a cold drinks and friends, or maybe long stints on the road driving to deserts and mountains.
While some of the lyrics are in the vein of “yearning for a pretty, long-haired lady in a short skirt who understands that behind my stoic, highway-burned face is a man who just needs real love,” the songs have an expansiveness that probably comes partially from the time Courage (nee Palmer) spent in living in New Mexico’s high desert a few years back. In one of the album’s best moments, on the song “Heartbreak Man,” the unapologetic narrator says goodbye without looking back, in the morning, or “under cover in the middle of the night,” and the lady and town about to be left behind are gifted with this caustic observation: “I miss my life back on the West Coast/I forgot my true identity/No one here knows my god-given name/They’re just in love with the fantasy.”
“Old Faithful Pulse” explores the three M’s: mortality, mystery, and misery. It sets the tone for the ensuing set of songs, well-crafted melodies that build up to crackling, sing-a-long choruses, of the type to be sung in hot, southern bars, where the only requirement is a beer in hand and a lost love lingering in the shadows near the jukebox.
The song “Middle Man” is a bluesy juke-joint tale of lies and cheating. “If it all ends tonight,” Courage sings, “how it all went down.” Money trees, devil tea, and bad men on the horizon, it’s all in there, sung with an convincingly burning sarcasm. It tells a story, and reminds us that often times the best music is told from the distant third, not necessarily the close first.
On many songs, Courage’s voice carries the languid, passionate, caramel tones similar to Chan Marshall from Cat Power, and though at times the songs are as world-weary—filled with hustlers and heartbreakers— as the famously world-sick front woman’s, the album’s 21st-century wild-west territories are subtly optimistic, bathed in golden California sunlight. The title track has a surprisingly poppy bridge, kicked up a notch with dulcet bell tones that might have come straight off Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream. “You take the mountain, I’ll take the crown,” sings Courage, simultaneously giving in and remaining hopeful.
On the last track, Courage wails, “I sold my soul for rock-and-roll” in a somber, nearly cracking voice that belies his age, singing softly, sadly—seeming over it before he’s even started. “It ain’t paying up,” he bemoans in the chorus. Yet, in actuality, with this new album, music’s melodic riches have truly bestowed themselves on this particular lanky, red-headed West Coast son.
The North Bay Hootenanny presents the album release show for John Courage and the Great Plains on Saturday, April 21, at the Last Day Saloon. 120 5th Street, Santa Rosa. 8pm. $10-$12. 707.545.5876. CDs will be available for $5.00.
Here’s a video for Courage’s home demo “Game of Charades.” It’s not on the album, but it’s a nice, pensive tune.