Tonight I saw Cake play live at Freeborn Hall on the U.C. Davis campus. I haven’t seen any acts there in quite some time, but used to do so regularly. The fact that I saw both the Dead Kennedys and Andreas Vollenweider there my freshman year (on very separate occasions) should give you some idea of my eclectic music tastes, which is a good thing with Cake, as they certainly explore a wide musical landscape.
I’ve liked Cake for years, reveling in lyrics that run the gamut of goofy, iconoclastic, deeply bitter and sometimes tender. The fact that they are from this area (Sacramento) is also a plus. Not too many bands from the Sac-town greater metropolitan area make it. Jackie Green is another notable exception. I also like Cake’s stance on many issues, such as recently aligning themselves with a grassroots movement to restore the Delta (this is not just about fish vs. farmers, but also local family farmers vs. mega-agribusiness farms, but I digress).
Now first, a confession. I have not yet bought Cake’s most recent CD, the self-released Showroom of Compassion. As such, I must surrender my card to IUSLG (the International Union of Set List Geeks), and present a review that is not a play-by-play. Did I just hear sighs of relief?
Tonight’s show showcased the band’s sense of humor (which is probably not a news-flash to anyone who has seen them live) even before they hit the stage. Five minutes of canned music teased us with crescendos and regal-sounding bugles before the band finally ambled onto stage. The music throughout was a mix of influences including rock-n-roll, country, hip-hop, funk and others. John McCrea’s patented deadpan wittiness, sarcasm and stingingly bitter heartbreak lyrics all sung to difficult rhythms make him a most unusual frontman. He seems to dearly love his vibraslap. Guitarist Xan McCurdy looks too young to have been with the band for nearly 13 years, but definite shows his chops as one of the more underrated guitarists in rock-n-roll. Trumpeter/keyboardist Vince DiFiore is also largely responsible for Cake’s unique sound. Elements as disparate as these, and the difficult, oddly syncopated, sometimes halting, song structures that the band loves to play require a strong rhythm section, and the have it in Paulo Baldi (drums) and Gabe Nelson (bass).
Now, while Cake is tight, they are not a slick, ultra-polished band, which is precisely why I like them live. They are not afraid to make a mistake; McCrea’s voice is not perfect, and they have fun with it. He cracked that he was embracing his fear by taking five minutes to tune his guitar. Responding easily to a heckler, he refused to embrace that person’s fears. A good lesson.
The music tonight covered new (songs like “Mustache Man,” and “Long Time”) and classics (such as “Opera Singer,” “Wheels” and “”Rock-n-Roll Lifestyle”, and all the themes. Goofiness, laced with love-angst abounds in songs such “Love You Madly” (“I don’t want to sit across the table from you, wishing I could run” — been there), juxtaposed immediately with the bitter heartbreak of “Sick Of You,” which morphed again into silliness with a sing-along that divided the room into the escapist side (“those who, when things get tough, turn to things like vampires, marijuana or video games…”) and the angry side. Politics, of course, got their due with “Federal Funding.” I suppose they were feeling nice, though, since “Nugget” was not played.
One highlight of the show is the classic moment in a Cake show — the fruit tree give-away. In a school-like moment, people were asked to politely raise their hands to guess what kind of tree it might be. Given McCrea’s sense humor, my instinct would have served me well, had I been called on. Yup, a blood orange tree. It turned out to be a tie between two bearded men, to be settled by arm-wrestling, no… wait… a dance-off. Does he plan these things, or do they come off the top of his head? Actually winning the tree turned out to be a bit of an obligation, as the lucky individual is now required to post annual pictures of himself with the tree to prove he hasn’t killed it.
After the tree, a few more songs closed out the second set.
The encores treated us to a blistering cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” — a better version than Sabbath’s, IMO (but then Ozzy was never backed by a trumpet and a vibraslap). The night finished with the also high-energy “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” to satisfy the craving for more of the classics, and a great way to end a night of fresh, real music.
The appreciative crowd did not let them go easily, and Cake seemed genuinely glad that we came, unlike the impersonal feeling one gets at hyped, glitzy arena shows.
Thanks for a wonderful night of music, a ten-minute bike-ride from home. The fact that the venue was smoke- and alcohol-free made the show even more enjoyable.