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Reviews

Virgin College Mega Tour Featuring Cake

Chase Martyn

No one liked any of the free gum flavors, but at least there was a view of the amateur sumo-wrestling ring.

Virgin College Mega Tour Featuring Cake

Virgin College Mega Tour Featuring Cake

City: Grinnell, Iowa
Venue: Grinnell College
Date: 2005-04-29

Cake
Standing in line at noon for free tickets to the Virgin College Mega Tour here at Grinnell College was an interesting experience -- no one I spoke to was particularly excited about it, but hundreds of students lined up. They were concerned about maintaining their hipster cred in the face of the first corporate-sponsored major record label tour to come to campus, at least in recent history. They could be overheard saying things like, "I'm really a lot more excited for the Built to Spill concert in two weeks," and "I can't believe so many people are lining up for this; it's just Cake!" But lined up they were, and the tickets were gone in two hours. As a proud hipster myself, I was especially worried: I have to write a review of the show that those trendy PopMatters readers are going to read! What if Cake were good and I had to give them a rave review? What if, in the course of my review, I accidentally mention that Cake's 1996 release, Fashion Nugget, was the album that taught me that songs that aren't singles are worth listening to? These reviews are supposed to show familiarity with Cake's music, so what if readers can tell that I actually have all of Cake's records (and, perhaps, that I know the words to most of the songs)? Damn. This was going to be tricky. Luckily, there were 10 hours of tour-related activities before Cake went on. Perhaps if I wrote about that stuff first, readers will stop reading before they get to the part about Cake. At high noon on Friday, the Virgin Village, a series of tents and booths were set up on Mac Field, Grinnell College's big quadrangular commons. By 1:30, all of the jokes you can possibly think of having to do with the name "Virgin Village" had been exhausted. Luckily, we didn't need any more jokes, because the place itself was funny for another hour or two. Then it got sad. The genius who thought that a Dentyne Ice-sponsored "CD Recording Studio" (which was really just a high-tech karaoke tent) would be a big hit at Grinnell was in for a shock. Same goes for the Major League Baseball execs who sponsored a MLB semi-truck with XBOX and PS2 baseball games. MLB also provided a free batting cage and a pitch speed contest, neither of which attracted more than 40 patrons over the course of five hours. Next to the glorified karaoke, Dentyne Ice had a "spin the wheel" game and, occasionally, the Dentyne promoters were able to get students to play for free t-shirts and to take samples of three different new gum flavors. No one I know liked any of the flavors, but at least from that booth there was a good view of the ridiculous amateur sumo-wrestling ring. Every once in a while, a band would take the outdoor mini-stage; it really dampened my mood. Most students didn't even turn their heads to face the musicians, and the only time the area in front of the stage wasn't empty was when a few students decided that it would be fun to mock the bands playing by pretending to be a lot more interested in the music than they actually were. Here they were -- the rising stars of mainstream alternative rock radio, on our modest little campus in rural Iowa -- and no one seemed to care. All our student body could muster was a sporadic, over-the-top mosh pit. I'll admit that I occasionally tapped my foot, but I was just trying to seem into it so that I could avoid being targeted by the woman trying to hand out CD-ROMs featuring "Very Interactive Xtremely [sic] Entertaining Naughty Supermodels" (VIXENS). The marketing decision to objectify women on CD-ROM for the greater cause of selling AXE deodorant played very well on our campus -- especially among Gender and Women's Studies students. But by 5 pm, like all things good and bad, the Virgin Village had to end, and our student body could claim moral victory: the ratio of paid employees to patrons never dipped below 1:4. And my friends and I were counting; there wasn't anything much better to do. A few hours later, it was time for the main event. Inside the Harris Concert Hall, which is certainly small by Cake's standards, the audience crowded the stage as Robbers on High Street began top play. The crowd responded well to their respectable-but-uneventful set, which lasted a mere 25 minutes. And then came Gomez, who were superb. Their stage presence and humor were distinctly British, and the classic rock influences in their music shone through in their live set far more clearly than on record. Even the audience members who hadn't heard Gomez before were into it by the end of the hour-long set. For a full 40 minutes, roadies scrambled around the stage, disassembling Gomez's equipment and setting up for Cake. They took down the huge Virgin Records backdrop that had served as a reminder to the audience that, although Robbers on High Street and Gomez might be good, this was still a major record label's tour. In its place, they hung Cake's inexplicably pixilated mountain landscape backdrop. (Lucky for us, huge Dentyne Ice, MLB, and Pontiac logos were still projected onto the walls to ensure that no one mistook the event for a typical Grinnell concert.) Meanwhile, outside the concert hall, a drunk student rode around on a bicycle holding a megaphone and telling everyone within earshot why the corporate sponsors of the event were evil. And then, the lights inside went out, signaling to everyone that John McCrea et al were on their way. We crowded the stage. But they weren't really on their way. It was another ten minutes before they took the stage in front of the now irritated crowd. A few jokesters decided that it would be funny to call for "Freebird" as they walked out; and so, instead of launching straight into song, McCrea spent a few minutes berating them. Apparently, he had (gasp) heard this joke before and wasn't amused. Finally, the band launched into "Sheep Go to Heaven", a song I wasn't expecting to hear. In fact, their whole set was heavy on their back catalog, and they picked the right songs: each of their releases was almost equally represented, and they didn't just play singles. The vocalists harmonized well, but the songs varied only a little from the recorded versions, which, given the occasional complexity of Cake's instrumentation, was both impressive and not as interesting as it could have been. A few songs into the set, the crowd was calming down after their initial irritation with tardiness and corporatism. It helped that McCrea apologized for the corporate appearance of the day's activities, explaining, "When it comes down to it, we're just here to play music." But then McCrea decided it was time for a sermon: he baited the crowd into complaining about the food in our campus dining halls so that he could tell us why we shouldn't complain about it, since only 35% of the world even has running water. His statistic was right, but we go to the college with the highest number of Peace Corps volunteers per capita in the country; there was almost no question that everyone in the venue knew that statistic already and we were unimpressed by his lecture. He's on a huge tour that is sponsored by a chewing gum company, a multi-million dollar sports league, and a car company -- not exactly the poster corporations for the quest against the developed world's excesses. Call the crowd oversensitive if you wish, but it really ruined the show for some of them. That dampened the mood enough that, when the band went into "No Phone" and a few other numbers that could have used crowd participation, the sound was a little disappointing. During "No Phone" in particular, McCrea gave separate singing parts to men and women to assert something that, to a crowd that had just been lectured for apparently not being humanistic enough and was looking for reasons to revoke the singer's Liberal pedigree, seemed to reinforce socially constructed gender roles. In general, it seemed that McCrea thinks that Cake is more of a jam band than it really is; he wanted audience members to sing along, but when he sang most of his songs, he was intentionally off-tempo, which made singing along pretty difficult. And I would know, because I tried. I have heard for years that Cake's live performances aren't very good, but most of the complaints I was aware of dealt specifically with the band's ability to keep their live music faithful to their recorded music. That wasn't an issue for this show: the instruments all worked together well, the vocalists harmonized fine, and even the random "Oh no! Oh yeah! All right!" exclamations that can be heard on the records were sung in the right places. The problems on Friday night were matters of circumstance: an overly commercialized tour on a proudly progressive college campus, an irritated crowd, and a touchy quasi-rock-star front man mixed to make the show less moving than it should have been. Perhaps on another campus and another day, the Virgin College Mega Tour has the potential to be a blast; but at Grinnell College's show, it was a big, fat corporate disappointment. Lucky for me, I didn't have to risk my credibility on this review after all. Hell, as it is, I might actually earn some hipster points on this one.

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