Give the Cowboys Some Acid

Photo by James BunoanCAMPER VAN BEETHOVEN/CRACKER
HOUSE OF BLUES
WEDNESDAY, MAY 14

We looked forward to partaking in this slice of early-'90s nostalgia—returning, however briefly, to a time when most of the bands we heard on the radio were tolerable. Yet we were nearly sidetracked by Game 3 of the Ducks-Wild series, which was being beamed on huge screens outside the ESPNZone to a throng of mouth-breathing mullet-heads. "Hey, this looks like a fun bandwagon to hop!" we thought, and 48 hours later, our asses were planted in section 440 of the Pond for our first-ever hockey game. As everyone now knows, Anaheim won by just one run; they didn't even bother playing the fourth quarter! Hockey is the shit, even if it is White People Galore.

Not unlike this show, actually, packed with balding men approaching 40 who hated their lives and wanted to hearken back to a time when their spirit wasn't yet completely destroyed by their shitty jobs and relationships. Even head Camper Van/Cracker man David Lowery looked like one of them, slightly grotesque in his creepy wraparound shades, but seedier—like a porn flick director or meth dealer. Fittingly, the band proceeded to make sleazy music for these sleazy times, coming off not as the much-heralded, snark-rock icons they were years ago, but more of an instrumental-steeped tribute band with an affinity for accordion-funktified klezmer tunes.

As performed by crack fiends, apparently. This night, they toyed with every aural possibility fathomable—from polka to punk in less than a minute!—imbibing in such sonic acid tabs as "White Riot" covers (done up all haggard and lazy like a 2 a.m. bar band; the Clash never sounded better) and a 10-minute take on Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk" with weird atmospherics that slipped into space-rock esoterica. (Real savage-like? More real overindulgent-like.) We loved their old-time strangeness, though, and they did all their semi-hits like "Eye of Fatima" and "Pictures of Matchstick Men" and, of course, "Take the Skinheads Bowling" (new subtitle: "Because They Can't Hang Out At the Shack Anymore"), and it was all wonderful and invigorating and good—particularly when we realized how much Camper Van sounded like one of our fave local bands, Havalina.

We were never into Cracker much, even when they were happening—too poppy and clean. Though we did enjoy their fabulous rendition of "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Motherfucker." (Rich Kane)

COWBOY NATION
ALEX'S BAR, LONG BEACH
MONDAY, MAY 19

We wouldn't know a Dixie Chick from a Dodger Dog, but we do know that Woody Guthrie's guitar killed fascists, and that defiant populism is a lot closer to the real frontier spirit than one of those cheap country-fried, two-shades-shy-of-white-pride radio hits about weeping eagles that rattle out of every oversized, overpriced pickup in Huntington Beach. We also know that the flaming-dice roots-rockers among you eat that cow-punk shit up around here—at least judging by the tats at a Social Distortion show—and so we wonder: Where the fuck were you guys Monday night?

Because Cowboy Nation is Chip and Tony Kinman, who were once the Dils, who once opened for the Clash—were once called the American Clash, though no one (especially them) probably took that too seriously—and who once had songs like "Class War" and "I Hate The Rich," and then they burned out on a rapidly dumbening punk scene and went remarkably and faithfully country. And Cowboy Nation tonight had Nickey Beat—once drummer for the Weirdos, the West Coast's secretly better Ramones—and they were playing electric instead of acoustic, and they were so preternaturally tight and focused that we forgot it was a lonely Monday night.

Lead singer Tony has an unhurried Johnny Cash baritone as big as the bass he hangs over his shoulders, and he's about as active (and lanky) as a Fredric Remington sculpture—not to belabor the Western-y shtick, but Cowboy Nation has a seasoned gunfighter's cadence, and they only move fast when they really need to make a point (and then Chip gets excited and does windmill jumps with his guitar—he couldn't help yelling "Yeah!" during a solo). But unlike about every other twang-bang country-come-lately band, Cowboy Nation are gentle enough not to trample obvious forebears under a cattle-stampede of Marshall-half-stack distortion and inspired enough to blow the dust off reedy harmonies best suited for slow freight drags through Oklahoma. You can string their songs together and get a better story than anything on country radio—you're leaving this town because you only got a dollar a day, and now you're talking revolution—and an elementally basic rock & roll sound like Lou Reed going after Buddy Holly going after John Lomax's Cowboy Songs And Other Frontier Ballads. It's nice that country music doesn't have to come out of assholes with Stetson hats, and that when everyone else is singing "God Bless America," somebody might still know the words—all the words—to "This Land Is Your Land." (Chris Ziegler)

 
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