It was shortly before 8:00 when I finally arrived at the Uptown Theater, having been first caught in an unexpected traffic jam due to construction on Broadway through Penn Valley Park, then walking three blocks from my deplorable parking job in front of some poor schmuck’s house down Valentine. It was the evening of April 20th, and a familiar, stomach-turning smell haunted the air inside the venue like a ghost.
There is always a fascinating enthusiasm from the audience at a large venue concert. It’s endearing, but verges on absurdity at times. House lights go dim, the crowd erupts in a cheer. Stage lights become more vibrant, the throbbing mass of people at the front of the stage become more visibly entangled and rhythmic in their deluge toward a better foothold. Many a fraternity brother tried and failed to start the chant of “Cake! Cake! Cake!” but were quickly muffled by the thundering undercurrent of conversations being had throughout the venue, admitting defeat and resigning to another eight ounce beer for as many dollars.
John McCrea and the rest of CAKE walked out on the stage to many an inebriated holler from the hecklers in front. With lights dimmed, the members casually lifted guitar straps over heads, grabbed sticks and fluidly segued into the somber trumpet introducing their take on Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” One by one, the spotlights flooded the floors beneath the players, first McCrea, then keyboardist and trumpet player Vince DiFiore, then guitarist Xan McCurdy, followed by bassist Gabe Nelson and drummer Paulo Baldi. Whose instrument was currently leading the song dictated which of the members were accentuated by the rows of glimmering lights dancing in unison above.
“For those of you wondering if you missed the opener,” McCrea said to stunned audience members just walking in the door after the first song, “We are the opener. And the headliner.” The band opted out of an opening act on the tour, instead performing a Vegas review-style evening, complete with intermission and banter that at times seemed all too scripted. Moments between songs were spent with McCrea making brief comments to and wry exchanges with the audience, the rest of the band keeping mime-like silence while staring at the floor, waiting for the front man to finish detailing his dream of owning a dual t-shirt/hot dog cannon, or lamenting the absence of the 3/4 time signature in late 20th century popular music.
After traipsing through 50 minutes of better known (“Frank Sinatra,” “Opera Singer”) and lesser known (“Mustache Man,” “Federal Funding”) songs played in an esteemed array of sounds, the band laid out a map of their influences, from the funk-driven radio singles, to those that give adoration to Mariachi and traditional country music. Played into the intermission, “Sick of You” concluded with a room wide chorus sing-along, with stage left singing “I wanna fly away” and stage right defiantly chanting “I’m so sick of you/So sick of me/I don’t want to be with you.”
The crowd grew anxious in the 20-minute break, and once again the air was permeated by smells unwanted. CAKE returned to the stage reinvigorated, and McCrea explained the purpose of the intermission as the only way to avoid giving everything away at once. Following this, the band kicked off the second half with “Sheep Go to Heaven,” the first in a 40-minute set that contained more would-be hits than deeper album cuts. “Ruby Sees All,” “Long Time,” and “Love You Madly” comprised the meaty bits in the latter half of the evening, the band playing a hastened “Never There” before removing guitars, waving to the crowd and walking off the stage to await the impending encore.
For nearly five minutes, applause rained down on the stage in a monsoon of noise before the members returned, picked up their instruments and began a three-song encore. “War Pigs” was played with DiFiore’s trumpet and McCrea’s vibraslap at the forefront, which led to another sing-along (or shout-along, rather) in the barked back-up vocals already present in the verse, “hey,” “ho,” and “na na na” portions of “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.” The night closed not with “I Will Survive” (a song which failed to make an appearance on the setlist altogether) but “The Distance,” arguably the band’s most popular hit, and one that is able to transcend genre affiliation and is impossible to lump in with anything other than the ’90s.
by Greg Stitt
Photos by Erica Cassella