PITTSBURGH, PA. January 23, 2003
As with any band whose legend has had a decade to grow to nearly unapproachable heights by disbanding before they hit a creative snag, Camper Van Beethoven has to contend with the unenviable task of competing with a version of themselves from an era when they were nearly 15 years younger and indie rock was a different beast altogether. No doubt, reunions of this sort have often been the unfortunate impetus for sending large numbers of aging hipsters to their homes feeling considerably older than they were when the walked through the venue’s doors. As such, it was somewhat frightening to imagine what might take the stage for the Pittsburgh club packed with patrons who risked their necks and insurance premiums skating through snow drifts to get there. And it says a lot that for a band that gained their reputation by mixing punk rock, country, and Eastern European folk music, that did a track-by-track reinvention of Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, and that had their only hit on a song called "Take the Skinhead’s Bowling," that reuniting was probably the one thing they were considered least likely to do.
Announcing their presence was a crudely refurbished kick drum left over from David Lowery’s Cracker days, here sporting a crudely fashioned piece of paper with an oversized "AMP" taped over the "RACK" underneath. Hanging from a mic stand was Jonathan Segel’s fiddle, covered in stickers like a punk rock kid’s first guitar. And taking the stage, it wasn’t hard to notice that the band’s gray hairs mirrored those in the crowds, as if few who weren’t around during the band’s first reign decided to show up. Still, all such cosmetic concerns were forgotten as the band launched into the first of many instrumentals, showing that their passion for the grab-bag of sounds spanning genres and eras, as well as the unique interplay of their band dynamic, had dimmed little over the years. Bassist Victor Krummenacher peered out in the crowd, a look of glassy-eyed concentration on his face, wrapping rubbery bass lines around lead guitarist Greg Lisher’s crisp hooks. Lowery and Segel, too, seemed entirely in their element, effortlessly slipping into the old songs with a freshness that comes from not having played them for over a decade. Standards such as "Border Ska" and "Balalakia Gap" crackled with a perfection somehow surpassing the originals, kicking off waves of embarrassingly un-possessed dancing and high-fiving in the crowd. Drawing heavily on their early releases, the hooks of selections such as the anthemic "Mao Reminisces About His Days in Southern China" and "Lassie Goes to the Moon" drew the crowd in before they left amidst a squall of feedback and computer noise for a 20-minute intermission.
Joking that Spin had once nominated them as the band "most likely to have a serial killer in the audience," Lowery kicked off the second half of their set, continuing to build on the informal rapport that the band had with the crowd. Probably sounding even more ironic than it did when the band remade it as a driving folk stomp, Black Flag’s "Wasted" was followed by the Clash’s "White Riot," showing Lowery’s surfer dude growl to be the perfect foil for so many different backdrops.
Incredibly chatty with the crowd, the band would read notes thrown on stage, playfully harass those who had trailed the band wearing shirts that made a message when they stood together, and badger those who would dare talk on cell phones during the show. And while the band seemed to take few liberties in their renditions, the presence of Lowery and Segel’s dueling laptops (set up on opposite ends of the stage) was felt all night, with each occasionally turning to intently peer into their illuminated screen as if they were reading e-mails, only to resolve to unleash a few moments of screeching sample collage mayhem as pre-programmed noise tracks were tacked on the end of their more experimental jams and had more than a few plugging their ears.
By the time they left the stage for the last time, it was two and half hours later and they’d left 34 songs hanging in the Pittsburgh atmosphere. Although clearly over-the-top statements such as, "I feel a piece of my adolescence that had been missing has been restored" (which I actually heard) filled the air as the crowd filed out into the frigid night, it was hard to deny that the band had provided more than could have reasonably been expected, not only living up to their recorded legacy, but reinvigorating it with an intensity beyond that captured on their releases. And even if two nights later, David Lowery reportedly would be maced by a few drunken boneheads in Philadelphia, cutting their set short, on this night at least everyone went home content, with their feelings of adoration intact, wishing they could feel that young every night.