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From coast to valley, music that binds California

Joe Mathews
Joe Mathews

What’s the fastest way from Berkeley to Bakersfield?

Flip to the second disc of the album.

California’s disparate regions are nearly impossible to connect. But over the past two years, two bands – with overlapping members – have issued three albums that musically connect California’s coast to its inland, its north to its south.

By examining the state’s divides so thoroughly, those two bands – Cracker and Camper van Beethoven – show we Californians are connected more by our own wrong turns and struggles than by any sun-splashed Silicon Valley successes.

Camper van Beethoven’s two albums – “La Costa Perdida” about Northern California and “El Camino Real” about Southern California – show how dream-seeking remains alive here, even if dreams seem smaller. Cracker’s new double album, “From Berkeley to Bakersfield,” offers one side of Bay Area folk rock and a second side of old-school country. Despite the stylistic differences, both sides depict Californians as poorer and living in grittier places, but still carving out their own little kingdoms.

“Between the two bands,” David Lowery, a founder and frontman for both Cracker and Camper van Beethoven, told me recently, “we took the entire state apart and reassembled it.”

California, for all its dynamism, is still defined by dreamier music from previous generations – Tupac and Dre’s “California Love,” the Beach Boys, that Eagles hotel.

But none of California’s classic titles are as grounded in place as Cracker’s and Camper van Beethoven’s recent songs. Both bands are established and more than 20 years old – with roots in Santa Cruz and in Redlands, in San Bernardino County. But Lowery says their deep musical dive into the state was inspired a few years back when a show at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur got canceled, and the musicians found themselves with an unexpected week off.

The songs they produced span the state, from “Northern California Girls” to “Camp Pendleton,” and celebrate grittier settings. The haunting song “Almond Grove” – about the homecoming of a guy from Kern County who works at Oakland’s port – binds it all together.

The songs aren’t angry – except about Silicon Valley. Cracker’s “March of the Billionaires” thunders:

“Give up your rights, your most private thoughts,

don’t make us label you some kind of Luddites.”

The song “El Cerrito” – for the Contra Costa County town – blasts at “pink-moustached taxi cabs.”

For family reasons, Lowery doesn’t live in California; he splits time between Georgia and Virginia, but he plans to come back. “I would live somewhere in the high desert. Or maybe up in the northwest corner of the state, Arcata or Crescent City.”

Or perhaps, he says, in both.

It’s all the same place, after all.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.

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