There are many things from the ’90s that have invariably lost their luster with the passage of time. Things that were once must-have, how-can-I-live-without, bastions at the forefront of pop culture, that are now relegated to the what-the-hell-were-we-thinking pile. Things like Z. Cavaricci, Rollerblades, these demonic, furry, killer robots, and The Heights.
There are also things from the 90s that are just as awesome now as they were then. Things like Seinfeld, playing Super Star Wars on Super Nintendo, one of the greatest cartoons of all time, and these words of wisdom from the best action movie ever made.
The band CAKE, definitely falls into the latter.
It has been 18 years since CAKE first, literally, trumpeted onto the scene with their debut album Motorcade of Generosity, and right from their first single, “Rock N’Roll Lifestyle,” we were introduced to what would quickly become their signature brand of melodic storytelling, whether about relationship postmortems, parables on socio-economic climates, or sometimes just about driving around in cars, told with razor-sharp, dry, sardonic wit.
CAKE’s style is less in-your-face and more call-it-like-I-see-it. They are music’s Daria, outsiders wryly commenting on the culture they are a part of solely because of their proximity to it. Their humor is everywhere in their lyrics and music and deftly layered and nuanced at the same time. Where other bands aim for Chris Farley, CAKE is more Dennis Miller. Speaking of nuance and levels, there was an episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (Ed. note – stay with me, I’m going somewhere with this), where one of the actresses (Harriet) asks why she got a laugh at the table read when she asked for the butter but not at the dress rehearsal. Matthew Perry’s character (Matt) responds that at the dress rehearsal she asked for the laugh. Harriet then asks, “And at the table read?” to which Matt replies, “You asked for the butter.”
CAKE has molded their entire career asking for the butter.
CAKE spent the latter part of this week being the musical guest on Conan and then playing to a sold out crowd at the Hollywood Palladium. That type of band longevity puts them in rarefied air. What is even more impressive is that not only have they done so with a seven year hiatus between albums, but, like another master butter connoisseur, they did it entirely on their own terms. 2011’s Showroom of Compassion, recorded in their own solar powered studio and released through their own label, Upbeat Records, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200, their first time ever achieving that feat, a fact, easily seen in their performance this weekend, that wasn’t lost on any of them.
With a simple mountain vista background and hanging disco ball stage set, and after a brief musical intro that reminded me of waiting in line to go see Captain EO, band members John McCrea, Vince DiFiore, Xan McCurdy, Gabe Nelson, and Paulo Baldi took to the stage. In comedy, and in music, delivery is just as important as the content, and McCrea’s deadpan vocals are dead on. I have no idea how he managed to be both excited and monotone, engaging and disaffected, the perfect voice to convey the spirit of the songs while also capturing the spirit of the evening. It is just as crazy thinking about having a trumpet in any other rock band as it is thinking of CAKE without one. DiFiore’s brass contributions are such a perfect complement to McCrea’s vocals and the rest of the instrumentation that what was once sought after to provide an alternative to the standard third melody instrument in music has now, to CAKE, become one of its signatures.
After opening with Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” and whetting the crowd’s appetite for the wry and droll with “Opera Singer” and “Mustache Man,” McCrea, dressed in conductor’s hat, blazer, and tuxedo T-shirt, asked “How many of you realized that there was no opening act tonight? We did that so we could come out and play two sets for you.” And that’s just what they did. For the next two and a half hours, CAKE scorched through two sets (separated by a brief intermission) and one hell of a three song encore, evenly visiting songs from their previous albums like “Frank Sinatra” and “Stickshifts and Safetybelts” as well as showing that CAKE is still very much CAKE with new fare like “Federal Funding.” On several occasions, bringing out a guest on slide guitar for “Mexico” and well, “Guitar.” While their influences run the gamut, from country to rock to big band to old school hip-hop to folk, one thing was consistent with every song played, the crowd knew every word.
At some point during the concert, in true CAKE fashion, they gave away a tree, something that has become a regular part of their shows. McCrea held a sort of lightning round and, picking on the “quietest members of the audience,” gave them the opportunity to win the tree if they could correctly guess the type (It was a Eureka lemon tree. The closest guess, Meyer lemon, won, although someone did raise their hand and guess that it was, in fact, a pink lemonade tree). After bringing the winner up to the stage and making them accept a handshake agreement that they would plant the tree and send pictures of the tree’s progress, the band went back to the business of the show.
While the Palladium is known more for its architectural appeal than its acoustics, the sound this night was impeccable. The end of each set was marked by the band’s more popular mainstream songs, “Love You Madly” and one of their most recent “Sick Of You,” ended the first set, “Never There” closed the second. By the time for the encore, the crowd was in an excited frenzy, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” “War Pigs” (on CAKE’s ridiculously awesome B-sides and Rarities album, a compilation of covers, an endeavor that CAKE takes very seriously, with epic results) and “The Distance” put them gleefully over the edge.
In an industry whose heyday seems to have been in the same decade when these guys were just Disney prisoners, how does CAKE not only survive, but flourish? That answer is simple. Funny is funny, and great is great. CAKE is both.