As a journalist there are certain tricks of the trade I don’t like to give away — I also don’t like using the first person when I write — but sometimes I have to make concessions. You see, when I was standing on the floor of the Riviera Theatre about halfway through CAKE’s first set on Saturday night, I was doing something journalists tend to do far too often. Even on the most serious of stories, it’s hard to resist mentally mapping your article while you’re still reporting.
CAKE’s first few songs had been a bit lackluster, and singer-guitarist John McCrea had been driving me absolutely insane with his aloof, pseudo-conductor stage presence. Less than an hour into their performance I had already declared the show a bust and planned out my headline: “Too much CAKE.” Everyone loves puns, and after throwing in a reference to that scene in Matilda where the schoolboy was forced to eat tons of cake, I was sure my review would come together nicely.
Well, leave it to CAKE, whose discography is defined by being unpredictable and quirky, to screw up my journalistic process. Billed on the marquee as “An Evening With CAKE,” the band forewent an opener, instead opting to play two sets for a total of 25 well-executed songs. After an off-putting start, CAKE put together a memorable night, leading a number of successful sing-a-longs and even giving away a nectarine tree at one point.
One of the most refreshing things about CAKE’s show at the Riviera, and probably CAKE shows in general, had nothing to do with the band itself — the crowd was a group of down-to-earth music fans or “the same people that you would bump into anywhere in your life,” as the band’s trumpet and keyboard player Vince DiFiore described them to me in a recent interview.
Outside the venue, fans were talking about how rarely CAKE tours, not because they were planning on touting their ticket stubs after the show to their friends in hopes of inspiring jealously, but because they were genuinely juiced to see the band. During the performance the vast majority of the crowd knew every word of McCrea’s vivid, obscure lyrics and sang along, many holding half-full beer cans aloft to create an enjoyable and relaxed atmosphere.
So CAKE’s job wasn’t that hard — they were playing to a crowd composed of good-natured fans, and even with a mediocre performance probably would have pleased most ticketholders. But the band’s performance was far from mediocre. CAKE’s music relies on tightly constructed grooves and group interdependency, and every song was spot-on musically. The audio mix was perfect at the Riviera on Saturday night, and the band’s rhythmic synergy permeated the theater effectively. Songs like “Long Time” and “Federal Funding,” both off CAKE’s 2011 release Showroom of Compassion, took on newer, funkier personalities in the live setting.
The first few songs of the concert were well performed, but at times lacked energy and were indistinguishable from each other. CAKE’s radio hits are notorious for their geeky, alternative personalities, but the beginning of their set was filled with some of their more country-tinged cuts like “Sad Songs and Waltzes” and “Stickshifts and Safety Belts” from 1996’s Fashion Nugget. The first set closed well though, with “How Do You Afford Your Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle?,”“Satan Is My Motor” (McCrea urged fans to indulge their “dark sides” and sing along) and “Sick of You.”
By the second set, CAKE played with an admirable cohesion, and the audience responded with far more energy than earlier in the show. Tracks like “Jolene” and “Pentagram,” from the band’s 1992 debut Motorcade of Generosity, stood out because of DiFiore’s and guitarist Xan McCurdy’s excellent musical interactions. Despite an amusing but far too long interlude where McCrea gave away a nectarine sapling to a lucky fan, the second set retained its energy, closing with “Guitar” and “Never There.”
There was little doubt that the band’s encore would consist of “Short Skirt, Long Jacket” and “The Distance” — although predictable, CAKE nailed both songs for a successful finish. The band’s evening started out on the rocks, but by the end all that most of the attendees — including myself — wanted was more CAKE.