- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The on-again, off-again indie-rock band Camper van Beethoven released a rock opera last year called “New Roman Times,” a surreal synthesis of junk culture, science-fiction fantasy and anti-Bush politics. A tour followed. Then, according to frontman David Lowery, much of the band had “straight jobs” to which to report.

In the meantime, there’s the Camper-Cracker Acoustic Duo, a stopgap tour of the East Coast and parts of the Midwest featuring Mr. Lowery and post-Camper collaborator Johnny Hickman, lead guitarist of Mr. Lowery’s other on-again, off-again band, Cracker.

“We don’t have straight jobs,” Mr. Hickman explained Monday night at the Birchmere.

Mr. Lowery and Mr. Hickman touched on old Camper nuggets such as “Sad Lovers Waltz” as well as tracks from the “Roman” concept album, the chronicle of a soldier-in-waiting from the “Christian fundamentalist Republic of Texas.”

They also aired Cracker favorites such as the FM hit “Low”; “Teen Angst (What the World Needs Now)”; “One Fine Day”; and “Euro-Trash Girl,” the delightful tale of Continental backpacking that was hidden on 1993’s “Kerosene Hat,” Mr. Lowery’s short-lived dip into the mainstream.

Not, however, before Mr. Hickman got a chance to promote his own forthcoming solo album. Mr. Lowery, tall and dressed entirely in black, awkwardly retreated to a dark corner of the stage Monday, ceding the spotlight to Mr. Hickman for a trio of folksy solo tunes, including “The Great Decline,” a rant about corporate outsourcing.

On Mr. Hickman’s hilarious buddy song “Friends,” the duo was joined by the Hackensaw Boys, a terrific Charlottesville bluegrass sextet that appeared periodically and nearly stole the show.

In-the-know Camper-Cracker fans seemed at ease with Mr. Lowery’s hyperreferential fusion of high and low culture. When not discoursing on an alternative history in which B-actor Keenan Wynn, rather than George Harrison, was a Beatle, Mr. Lowery was name-dropping novelist Thomas Pynchon, the muse of the CVB song “All Her Favorite Fruit.”

Mr. Hickman played a few serviceable leads on electric guitar, but the rule of the night was handmade twang. Rather than walk off with a hit — Cracker’s “Get Off This” went missing in the 90-minute set — Mr. Lowery and Mr. Hickman recalled the Hackensaw Boys for an austere rendition of the traditional “O Death.”

“Can’t you spare me over ‘til another year?” Mr. Lowery sang with nary a trace of his characteristic irony — a rare moment for one of rock’s most underappreciated jokesters.

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