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We’re here for you: Camper Van Beethoven at Valentine’s.

photo:Chris Shields

For Fans Only
By Kirsten Ferguson

Camper Van Beethoven

Valentine’s, May 13

No serious Camper Van Beet hoven fan could complain about the band’s selection of songs for Friday’s show at Valentine’s. With a set list that ran some 30 songs long, the pioneering indie rock band—who reunited last year to tour together for the first time in nearly 15 years—shuffled between tracks from each of their five ’80s albums. They dusted off most of their well-known songs from the past, including one-time radio hit “Eye of Fatima” and “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” the first-album novelty that broke the band, which both came relatively early in the set.

Otherwise, the band’s set was no mere greatest-hits run. Other than a handful of tracks from CVB’s post-reunion New Roman Times album, most of the set was culled from various early albums, minor gems such as Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart’s “Tania,” which ended in a frantic violin-fueled jig, or “Sad Lovers Waltz” from the band’s second album, a song that inspired a couple in front of the stage to do the triple-time twirl. (How long had they been waiting for that moment?) With the band’s flair for covers also in the house, they played a slowed-down, Clash-sinking-in-quicksand version of “White Riot” followed by a red-faced shouting of Black Flag’s “Wasted,” more faithful to the hardcore original than to the sardonic California valley-boy version that appeared on CVB’s first album. They even took an appropriately trippy detour through Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive,” a song they had covered in the past.

The band sounded great too, shifting seamlessly from tightly-wound twang to muscular rock. Singer David Lowery stood unobtrusively to the side of the stage, the band lined up egalitarian-like, as he dogged out the rhythm on a borrowed guitar (the band recently had their gear stolen for a second time). Multi-instrumentalist Jonathan Segel added the virtuoso violin that turned many of the band’s instrumentals into festive foot stompers. The value of lead guitarist Greg Lisher, who barely seemed to move from the neck down while playing, was even more apparent live, his distinct guitar style adding color to songs like “Sons of the New Golden West.” Only two Apple laptop computers, open on either side of the stage, were modern additions.

So fans had no room for complaint with this set, right? You would think. The die-hard fans were out in force, and the place was pretty packed with disorderly music fans from indie rock’s previous decades. Maybe some of them hadn’t been out of the house in a while, and from what I could tell, lots and lots of alcohol had been consumed. As my friend noted, it was as if the crowd had the spent the day drinking at a preshow tailgate party. Call me cranky, but nonstop drunken shout-outs can get tired. Lowery must have thought so too. “Fuck you,” he said pointedly, after a fan yelled out a demand for him to shut up and play more old material.

Yikes. I mean, Lowery looks all next-door-neighbor-like, with his conservative haircut and amber sunglasses dangling from his neck, but I would never want to get on the caustic songwriter’s bad side. Oh, Lowery got his revenge, by calling said fan onstage for a segment called “interview the audience,” which was appropriately humbling but not as humiliating as it could have been. (The most unintentionally comic moment: Lowery asked the fan how much he had to drink, and the guy said “You mean tonight or today?”) The guy’s complaint, that the band hadn’t been playing old material, was just not true given the breadth of the set list. It also did an injustice to the new material from New Roman Times. In particular, “51-7,” the dynamic leadoff track from the self-described rock opera, the nostalgic “The Long Plastic Hallway,” with reference to Hunter S. Thompson, and “That Gum You Like Is Back in Style,” all ranked up there with the band’s best from the past.

Nashville Eloquent

Rodney Crowell

The Egg, May 15

As far as Nashville songwriters go, Rodney Crowell has an impeccable pedigree. He was raised in Houston (at the appropriate poverty level), spent a good chunk of his early years in Emmylou Harris’ band (as a guitarist and songwriter), and penned a bunch of country hits for other artists along the way. He also learned his craft under the watchful eye of such mentors as Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and even had the distinction of being Johnny Cash’s son-in-law for a time (via his now-dissolved marriage to Rosanne Cash).

So you’ll have to excuse Crowell if he can’t remember the last time he played in Albany. (After some abbreviated head-scratching, he figured it was back in ’75, with Harris’ band.) The fact that he was in Albany had everything to do with the Egg’s remarkable American Roots & Branches music series. Most venues would be pleased to have artists such as Crowell, Guy Clark, Ralph Stanley, Lyle Lovett and Doc Watson in a lifetime—the Egg is doing it in one season. In the world of roots music and Americana, it is simply one of the best-booked venues in the country. (The Swyer Theater should also top lists for acoustics, sight lines and intimacy.)

But long before Crowell—looking lean, gray and scrappy—paused to wrap his mind around the Albany problem, he and his band threw themselves businesslike into the first two numbers, “Earthbound” and “Ridin’ Out the Storm” (both from 2003’s excellent Fate’s Right Hand). Throwing his shoulder against the anvil a bit seemed to loosen up Crowell’s tongue, and before long he was spinning yarns in his elliptical, eloquent, almost intellectual manner (thankfully ditching the proud “plain-spokenness” of so many of his denim-clad, troubadour contemporaries). In one particularly lengthy preamble, Crowell reflected upon his youth growing up in worker’s housing under oppressive Gulf Coast humidity, aggressive hordes of mosquitoes and the occasional giant blue cloud of DDT. In sheer length and imagery, it could have been published as a short story.

There was nothing bookish about Crowell’s band, however. The three-piece were a taut, strapping little rock & roll outfit. Most of Crowell’s tunes came off as burning roots-rock, skirting any kind of Nashville-isms. Guitarist Will Kimbrough—who also opened the show as an acoustic solo act—proved himself a dynamic colorist, digging into all kinds of shades and tones: country, blues, rockabilly, even some more alt-rock-sounding passages (as would befit the former leader of ’80s Southern power-poppers Will and the Bushmen). Crowell’s band swung from a tight, four-on-the-floor attack to deeply heartworn balladry. “Wandering Boy” alone came off like an exercise in feel and band dynamics, starting off breezy and reflective and building toward a fierce emotional core, with Kimbrough ripping open such soulful, bracing leads that the audience sprung to their feet in standing ovation. Crowell seemed so comfortable amid his band that his solo, audience-request segment sort of faltered after a couple of songs—as he was moved to bring Kimbrough back out for a version of Van Zandt’s classic “Pancho & Lefty.”

Kimbrough’s own opening set made one wonder how long the musician would be content to remain part of another artist’s universe. Kimbrough—a golden-throated, powerfully talented troubadour in his own right—put on one of the strongest opening sets I’ve witnessed. His tunes mixed roots-rock and sharp pop sensibilities; he even got the audience to sing along on an acoustic rockabilly rave-up he had written in tribute to Yo Yo Ma. Closing out his set, he noted that Rodney Crowell would be out soon and (pointing stage-left) said, “I’ll be right over there.” As for his part, Kimbrough remembered having been in Albany before: He recalled eating hot dogs with Sarge Blotto near the QE2 while on tour in the ’80s.

—Erik Hage

Better Than Ice Cream

Sarah McLachlan, the Perishers

Pepsi Arena, May 13

The Palace Theater would have been a more appropriate setting to enjoy the intimate, honey-voiced singer Sarah McLachlan than the Pepsi Arena. I heard that there were only about 5,000 tickets sold for her Afterglow tour, and it’s not surprising, since her audience is arguably mostly female and excludes most teens and preteens (who unfortunately have some pretty hefty buying power these days).

That being said, I doubt that they could have fit McLachlan’s elaborate stage setup into the Palace. I was surprised at the complexity of the props (video screens, mossy knolls, pillars, etc.). I had seen McLachlan in 1997 during the first go-round of Lilith Fair (an all-female tour at which McLachlan was at the helm), and, granted, she was sharing the stage with a bunch of other performers and therefore individual stage accessories were impossible, but the stage consisted of the performer and her guitar and not much else.

The stage was, however, beautiful and mystical and fairylike (her cast of band members acted like elfin adorers, complementing the carefully cultivated dreamscape), and perfectly set the mood for McLachlan’s performance, which proved to be a good combination of new and old songs. She started with “World on Fire” off the recent Afterglow and continued with “Building a Mystery” off 1997’s successful Surfacing. She continued with a mix from these two albums, taking up her guitar for some and sitting at the piano for others. McLachlan is a particularly sensual performer, which one might expect, as her canon is full of sweet, velvety love songs. (“You know me,” she said between songs, “I love love songs.”) She moved her hands smoothly and subtly, which added to the intimacy of angelic anthems like “I Will Remember You” and “Sweet Surrender.” She snuck in a breathy cover of the Beatles’ “Blackbird,” which was a treat.

McLachlan finished her set with a few selections from my favorite of her albums, Fumbling Towards Ecstasy. I would have been disappointed had she only done one or two from that album, but when all was said and done, we got about half of that record.

The encore was terrific; McLachlan started out with “Ice Cream,” off Ecstasy, then continued with an energetic version of Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill,” and a couple more selections off Ecstasy. She then left the stage and came back once again to play “Push” (from Afterglow) for the patient fans who waited around, you know, just in case.

Swedish band the Perishers, six guys with classic rock-star shag haircuts and waifish builds, opened with a strong set of power-pop tunes, complete with a ballad on which McLachlan helped out. The band are touring in support of their most recent release, Let There Be Morning (Nettwerk), which was out in April.

—Kathryn Lurie


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