Cake: 29 April 2009 - Houston

[4 June 2009]

By Chris Conaton

The term “An Evening With…” is lightly used in the concert industry, yet it still carries with it a few expectations. Namely that there will be no opening act at the show and that the headliner will play for a significant amount of time. How long this will be is not specifically laid out, but it can be assumed that the show will last at least two hours since it’s supposed to last for “An Evening.” Cake’s version of this type of show found the band playing two short sets and two encores and giving away a tree over the course of exactly two hours.

Cake has been mostly absent from the concert circuit for years—this tour is their first full-fledged jaunt in a long, long time. Similarly, the band hasn’t released an album of new material since 2004’s Pressure Chief. Yet the group’s string of hits in the ‘90s seems to have given them a loyal and substantial following. This show brought out a big, enthusiastic crowd for a Wednesday night.

The band got started shortly after 8pm with the title track from Comfort Eagle. This dark, biting song was a strong opener, and the crowd shouted along at the appropriate points as frontman John McCrea sang “He is in the music business / He is calling you—DUDE!” Next, the band abruptly shifted gears to their languid cover of Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes”, and shifted again to the upbeat, catchy “Short Skirt / Long Jacket”, which brought more singing along from the audience. McCrea thanked the crowd for coming out and complimented us on our singing, before rambling on a little bit about Houston’s connections to the oil industry. Cake is a band that attempts to be as “green” as possible, and McCrea seemed to be a little uncomfortable playing here. But the love and good singing from the crowd seemed to spur the band on. Even the notoriously prickly McCrea looked to be having a good time, keeping his diva-like behavior at bay for the entire first set.

The opening set went on for about 45 minutes and also included the excellent “Frank Sinatra” and a pair of songs from Motorcade of Generosity, “Comanche” and “Ruby Sees All.” The band also played a new song from their forthcoming album, which McCrea said would be coming out “soon”. He also pointed out that Cake is now free from a major label, and that when the album does come out it will be on their own imprint. The set closed with a rousing rendition of “Sheep Go to Heaven”, complete with an extended ending where McCrea split the audience down the middle and had us compete with each other to see who could sing the chorus the loudest.

As the first set ended around 8:50, my friends and I looked at each other and kind of went, “Okay, really good first set, but that was pretty short.” The intermission was a brief 10-15 minutes, and Cake was back with the excellent Comfort Eagle instrumental “Arco Arena.” This is one of the few times that I actually wished they would stretch the song out for a little bit. The song has a great groove, but only lasts for about two minutes. Next up was another strong song from Comfort Eagle, “Love You Madly”. McCrea then introduced a song, saying, “I wrote this song in a very tall building in New York City.” Of course this turned out to be “Guitar”, the wistful, catchy song about wanting to throw a guitar out of a 32nd floor window.

And then it was time to give away a small tree. Apparently the band has been doing this at every show for at least a year, letting audience members guess until someone correctly identifies what type of tree it is. The winner has to be able to take it home, plant it, take yearly photos with the tree, and send the pictures to the band’s website. For this show it was a pomegranate tree, but the crowd had real trouble figuring it out. I certainly wasn’t able to identify it. But McCrea was determined to get the correct answer, so the guessing went on through maybe 15 people. And this is where the pissy, diva side of John McCrea emerged. He gave out several hints along the way, but they were buried among his pleading, cajoling, and eventually cursing at the audience to get it right. He even warned us that we were wasting valuable music time by taking so long to come up with the answer. Eventually, finally, someone got it right. But the damage had been done. The band only played two more songs, the hilarious country ditty “Pentagram” and the funky “Jolene”, before leaving the stage. So the second set lasted about 40 minutes and only contained five songs.

Of course the band quickly returned for an encore, hitting their cover of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” and their second biggest hit, “Never There”. The latter featured more singing and shouting along from the crowd. McCrea thanked us all for showing up, saying that the band appreciated each and every single one of us for remembering that they exist and for coming out to the show. They left the stage, but the houselights didn’t come up. Returning for one more encore, the band performed “Wheels” and then waffled about what they were going to finish with. After asking the crowd if they wanted an old song or something new, they decided to ignore the audience’s (predictable) choice for something familiar and played a new song. And that was it. The band left the stage at 10:05 pm, wrapping up the show after two hours and maybe 95 minutes of music.

Having seen Cake before and witnessing McCrea’s diva tendencies firsthand, I can’t say I was surprised by what happened at this show. Still, you take the good with the bad. The good was that, despite the show-halting tree giveaway, the band still managed to play 20 songs. That’s pretty substantial, and they had a good mix of popular tunes and deeper album cuts. On the other hand, as the show wound down, McCrea started talking about how the band was running out of songs that they knew how to play. It’s kind of a funny line if you’re a layperson, but it comes off as patronizing and disingenuous when you know Cake operate without a setlist and have dozens of songs ready to go at any time. It’s a shame that the audience was tree-ignorant, but it seems really unfair to punish us by cutting a set short because of it. The expectations I had for spending “An Evening With Cake” were not quite met. Still, with the big enthusiastic crowd and a strong set, it was fun despite the problems.

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