Camper Van Beethoven - Pappy's And Harriet's in Joshua Tree - 9-16-11
Better Than: Seeing Camper Van Beethoven in boring old L.A.
When Camper van Beethoven was a hot alterna-band at the beginning of their career in the mid-'80s, David Lowery sang with the defiant nasal sneer of a smartass college kid. Thirty years later, Lowery's voice has lost its nasality, and his attitude has lost its sneer. Now, the defiance is about sticking with his game well into maturity, dues paid, and fan base secure.
Camper van Beethoven can't rightly be called a nostalgia act. But considering they were performing at intimate, out-of-the way venue Pappy's and Harriet's in Joshua Tree, that feeling couldn't be avoided. Camper's set was a slow burn -- confident, assured, comfortable - that didn't set the determinedly mellow audience into a frenzied fire until late in the game. In fact, the relationship between Camper and their fans entrenched enough to trek to this "Campout" gig is like that of an old, happily married couple: they're comfortable together, they still enjoy one another, but they're not doing a ton of jumping up and down and screaming. Just a lot of nodding.
After Lowery's often-pointed, often gleefully nonsensical lyrics ("I had a dream I wanted to sleep next to plastic, I had a dream I wanted to lick your knees"), Camper's distinctive sound is all about the seamless integration of gypsy folk violin into rock and roll. At one point during the show, drummer Frank Funaro even pantomimed air violin with his drumsticks. What would "Turquoise Jewelry" be without that Eastern-European fiddle twang? Violinist Jonathan Segel's riffs at times floated out of his instrument ethereally.
The third wheel in the romance was Pappy's and Harriet's, whose rustic desert rat vibe at times felt poised to steal the show, another character in the love story. The burned-wood sign over the bar says, "If you cause trouble in this establishment, think of a number between 85 and 87," but it's tough to imagine anyone getting too uppity in this largely-for-locals, family friendly, desert saloon. Several kids roamed the crowd, fiddling with lightsticks or riding on their parents' shoulders.
After Camper's generously long set, local favorites Gram Rabbit -- playing under the assumed name "The Country" -- took the inside stage, opening with a rousing cover of Neil Young's "Are You Ready For The Country?" Lead singer Jessica (Rabbit?) ruled the roost with her tremolo warbling, looking glamourous, blonde, and polished, and oh-so out of place in the dusty desert crowd. But Gram Rabbit is pure Joshua Tree: full of unexpected beauty and vast potential.
The Crowd: Joshua Tree locals by the bar, over-the-hill Gen X-ers by the stage.
Critical Bias: I'm an over-the-hill Gen X-er myself.
Random notebook dump: The evening's clothing theme was "Happy Hippy." Tomorrow's? "Cops."
Set list below.