Putting the “and” Back In “Rock and Roll”
If you’re not thinking about it like we critics constantly force ourselves to do, you might forget that the most important word in “rock and roll” is that conjunction in the middle. It’s not rock. It’s not roll. It’s rock and roll. You can have one without the other, but like yin and yang, ability and execution, talent and charisma, it’s better when one bridges the gap to the other.
John McCrea, ironically the most animated member of Cake, certainly doesn’t lack in talent. His lyrics are some of the sharpest three-minute social critiques to make it on corporate radio these (con)formatted days, and they manage to skewer mainstream tastes while making many mainstreamers sing along and stomp their feet despite themselves. It’s the charisma part that can throw you off.
See, John’s a normal guy. Really normal. He wears a baseball cap and jeans. He has a poorly shaved goatee. He has a gut. His features, from head to toe, are a series of circles and straight lines rather than the sharp edges and curves that allow many entertainment icons to double as poster boys and girls. John’s no icon and he’s no poster boy. His style seems neither pulled from the pages of GQ nor assembled from trips to the neighborhood thrift store. It simply seems like what was in his closet. About the most risque accessory he wears onstage is a pair of sunglasses, but even those seem more to keep the spotlight out of his eyes than an attempt at self-aware hipness. McCrea’s unfalteringly, unashamedly average. He’s the Drew Carey of rock and roll.
Or at least at first appearance he’s the Drew Carey of rock and roll, because his rock seems to have been displaced by his roll. But once things get going and you get into the rhythm of his seemingly inane concert banter, you realize his rock isn’t non-existent, it’s just that it’s as subtle and cynically pie-eyed as he is. What he does isn’t inane Americana humor like Carey—it’s intoned, intelligent, insightful Americana humor like Mike Judge and the Coen brothers. Listen too casually and he’ll seem stupid; listen too hard and he’ll seem pompous; but listen just enough to pick up on his banal cadences and you’ll know you’re in for both rock and roll.
Cake’s visit to Salt Lake City, a spot in the middle of the U.S. map that McCrea reportedly vowed never to visit again after being struck in the head by an overzealous fan’s shoe several years ago, was the decidedly abnormal occurrence of the 19th Winter Olympiad—abnormal because it had the effect of transforming otherwise incredibly boring lower downtown Salt Lake into the coolest spot on the planet for two weeks. The Ice Village, a corporate-sponsored winter sports and music party in a giant warehouse that hosted concerts by Nikka Costa, George Clinton, Cheap Trick, Modest Mouse, Perry Farrell, The Roots and others, was in turn possibly the coolest non-Olympic place to be downtown. The vast majority of the fans who packed the Ice Village every night were young Utahans rather than visitors from around the world. And, keeping with the suppressed and somewhat loco energy that many traveling bands have noted about Utah concertgoers (McCrea’s run-in with a fan’s shoe is, for better or worse, not an isolated incident ‘round these parts), these kids were nuts with Olympic spirit because they could sense that a fortnight-long sideshow this cool wouldn’t make it back to Salt Lake anytime soon.
Cake was picked to close out the festivities at the Ice Village, and they were more than up to the challenge of proving that they could rock and roll for the rambunctious locals and scattered tourists. The band played without a set list but didn’t stoop to that age-old gimmick of taking requests from fans. They were there to have a good time, and they knew that if they took care of their own good time first rather than pandering to a politically correct “fans first” credo, everyone would be better served.
Thankfully, that’s exactly how it worked out. Cake got to play the songs they liked, the crowd got to hear the songs they liked, and McCrea got to take his time getting to his punchlines. The frontman spent the better part of two minutes explaining that Cake’s charming cover of Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Roses” was “not a pop song . . . It’s not a rock song . . . It’s not a radio song . . . It’s not even a Cake song . . .” At another point he described “Jesus Wrote A Blank Check” as a song that was really about the Olympic spirit. That was after spending most of the set asking if there were any gold medal winners in the crowd, only so he could throw down this gauntlet: “The entire band of Cake will challenge all gold medal winners to foosball, and we’ll kick your ass.”
McCrea introduced crowd-favorite (and rarely played) “Mr. Mastodon Farm” by describing his patently normal hometown of Sacramento as “the capitol city of the free world,” then set up an incredibly long and convoluted story about the anger Salt Lakers felt toward the citizens of nearby West Jordan (don’t worry if you don’t get it—most people who were there didn’t get it, either) in an effort to get them to shout their “HEYYY-OH!” cheers louder. It was a long and boring setup, but it worked like WD40 on a squeaky wheel. McCrea liked the singalong chaos he’d wrought so much that he got the band to play the last verse again, and the audience followed right along.
Such well-scripted yet seemingly improvised participation didn’t let up all night. McCrea is undoubtedly the leader of the band, but it’s a band that’s so in tune with how they can play off each other that they don’t need a setlist, they can start songs over again just because they’re having fun, and they can build and collapse around McCrea’s commentaries with the twang of a finely-tuned jam band and the improvisational awareness of jazz classicists. For such a plain group that rarely goes over four minutes per song on CD, Cake knows exactly where and when to expand its songs in concert to get the crowd going.
David Fricke of Rolling Stone once described a pair of songs (the Chemical Brothers’ “Block Rockin’ Beats” and Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”) by saying that the most basic principle of any music is, or at least should be, to make people dance. He may be right, but there’s no “and” in there. After seeing Cake and McCrea so thoroughly entertain a dancing, shouting, smiling crowd with such All-American verse-chorus-verse fireworks, you can’t help but think that the complete basic principle of any music is to make people dance and sing. At least, that’s the full function of Cake’s conjunction.