March 22, 1995
New songs, old songs and a studied sense of slack highlighted a performance by Cake at the Rockin' Horse last week.
Singer John McCrea, a brimmed fishing hat on his head and an undersize acoustic guitar between his arms, looked like a slovenly Jimmy Buffett as he led the Sacramento band through a succession of lazy grooves, starting with "Is This Love" from the band's recent CD, Motorcade of Generosity. The response was an assault on the dance floor by determined hoofers and swayers. Not that much encouragement was needed. Cake's rhythmic shuffles and syncopations were instantly attractive, with drummer Todd Roper and, especially, bassist Victor Damiani impressive as the band's drive train.
Cake also made an immediate impact with some creative interplay between trumpeter Vince di Fiore and lead guitarist Greg Brown. The two, stationed on either side of the stage, teamed for a wonderfully teetering Tex-Mex feel. At times, when placed just right in the mix, it sounded like a full horn section was hiding somewhere behind the amps.
All of which helped divert some of the focus from McCrea, who otherwise could have stolen the show with his wisenheimer persona. He warmed the crowd from the outset by making fun of a local deejay's rather histrionic introduction. McCrea later proved an amiable game-show host by awarding an "official, gold-plated, Cake expandable address booklet" to anyone who could answer a vague George Jones question. (Someone did; the answer was "The Race Is On," which the band subsequently played.)
Not all was bliss, though. McCrea and company occasionally seemed distracted. Some of it was no doubt intentional, a kind of decided disaffection that, indeed, pumped irony into lines like the opening couplet in "Comanche": "You need to straighten your posture and suck in your gut/You need to pull back your shoulders and tighten your butt. . . ." That's a great moment on the CD, but the band's extra-laid-back attitude almost smothered the song live. The same thing happened to "Rock 'n' Roll Lifestyle," the marvelously snotty single getting airplay in the Valley. The crowd called for it almost the minute the band hit the stage. But when McCrea got around to it, he seemed bored and bemused. The eager audience sang along, anyway.
Cake's energy lifted on a couple of new songs, including a funky number that, to these ears, featured a chorus of "Shut the fuck up." Other ears must have come to the same conclusion. The song successfully cleared the bar of at least two middle-aged tourists who, until then, seemed more interested in the stuffed moose head by the front door than anything happening onstage.
The first set came to a close with McCrea hawking band tee shirts that inexplicably illustrated the relationship between ants and aphids. He then announced, "The next song is about my spiritual journey," at which point the band broke into a cowboy trot with McCrea singing, "Jesus wrote a blank check/One I haven't cashed yet. . . ."
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After an extended intermission, Cake wowed what little remained of the audience with a spirited version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" before settling in for the rest of the evening bobbing and weaving around intermittent monitor problems.
Opening act Kevin Salem, who used to play lead guitar for Dumptruck and Freedy Johnston, proved that when it comes to singing, well, he can really play guitar. Salem's ten-song, 45-minute set was an aggravating catalogue of tuneless, standard-issue rock. Salem jumped, shouted and ran around the stage in nervous fits and starts. But he could have had a grand mal seizure up there and it wouldn't have livened up his material.
Before breaking into the final song of his set, Salem, for the fourth time that night, implored the impassive audience to dance. "Or isn't Phoenix that kind of place?" he asked.
No, Kev. It's you. Cake later proved that point.--Ted Simons