16 Apr 2011: 9:30 Club Washington, D.C.
Cake greeted the capacity crowd of thirty-something’s under a disco ball that shimmered oddly along a painted mountainscape backdrop. The peculiar visual fusion was perfect for a band that has never been guilty of simplicity. Opening with “Sad Songs and Waltzes”, the country funk of Xan McCurdy’s guitar and Vince DiFiore’s Mexicali trumpet began a very special, very outspoken evening with Cake.
Led by the trademark sing-speak vocals of John McCrea, Cake is precisely what their name implies: a mixture of ingredients with a flavor that varies based on the arrangement of each layer. On stage, Cake’s songs have room to breathe but not enough to give them a life outside the studio. For instance, because they structure their live extensions (or “jams”) around an impressively wide variety of rhythm (rather than improvisation), you’ll forever clamor for a killer guitar solo that will never happen - it’s just not part of the formula.
For Cake, creating a song is probably a bit like making a baby; they can labor about the creative process however they want, but in the end, genes are at play. All of their albums have different personalities, but each carries the DNA of the quintet like an audible tattoo. Having had fairly static personnel since 1994, Cake’s unique timbre is in many ways the core of their identity. Whether it’s the perfect-hook guitar lines, the rattle of the vibraslap, or the swoon of the trumpet – every song is the product of a recipe that has managed to keep them relevant for almost 20 years.
Methodical creativity aside, Cake puts on a great live show. Song selections seemed to be improvised, but the sets loosely followed a ballad>rock>rock>ballad format that kept the crowd singing and dancing throughout the night. Obvious high-points came with their most popular anthems (“Sheep Go to Heaven”, “Love You Madly”, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” and “The Distance)” and older songs, like “Frank Sinatra” and a Cake-flavored cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” were also big hits with the crowd.
As is true with most bands, Cake displayed bit more vitality while playing selections from their new album “Showroom of Compassion”. “Long Time”, “Mustache Man”, “Bound Away” and “Sick of You” immediately stood up to the classics and proved that Cake isn’t some slow-death 90’s novelty act. One of the tunes, “Federal Funding”, written specifically for Washington, D.C., served as the springboard for John McCrea’s sporadic diatribes. He introduced the song and provided the adage, “I call D.C. the ‘Big Tit’...because everyone comes here to suck.”.
McCrea’s rants were all very green-diva / kill-your-television and it gave the impression that in the right setting his passion could incite a riot - but he probably wouldn’t throw a rock on its behalf. Aside from taking some snarky jabs at politicians, bankers and frat-boys, McCrea gave away a cherry tree and lectured someone in the crowd for filming him with a smart phone. He turned to the crowd and urged, “Let’s not exist inside this device! Lets fucking hunker down and live within the present moment!”.
Activism aside, Cake put on a flawless performance and you have to respect McCrea for his blunt candor because it gets results: it was the first time in years you could see the stage without having to look through 100 LCD screens.
Photo credit: jessejusticephotography.com