Cake and Calexico at Mesa Amphitheatre, 6/10/11

Cake and Calexico
Mesa Amphitheatre
Friday, June 10, 2011

Calexico and Cake on the same ticket...seems a little unexpected, right? The bands have more in common than meets the eye.

Both bands use horns, and Calexico's connection to Artists for Action makes them a forerunner for political change. What does Cake have to do with all of that? They're also involved with the organization.

Songs like "The Distance" don't exactly scream activism, but the band has a deeper message. Cake has come full circle after self-releasing their first album nearly two decades ago. Their latest, Showroom of Compassion, was independently released as the lowest-selling No. 1 album to grace the Billboard charts. Hey, it's still a No. 1 and a triumph for independent music.

"We released it on our own, independent of a label, and didn't think anyone would notice, but you did," said vocalist John McCrea before launching into "Mustache Man (Wasted)." He noted that "people don't fuck with you" if you don't have an ironic mustache.

Cake seems to be doing all right without the constraints of a major label. The band is free to do what they want, and took full advantage of that last night.

McCrea had an odd companion throughout the evening -- a tree. He didn't acknowledge it until later, after a few accusations that the right side of the crowd needed to control their anger. "Life's so good, I wanna give you a tree, maybe that will sooth your anger. Let's do this fast, because people in Arizona get very furious at this tree thing," he said.

The audience was intrigued at first, but he was right, their patience started to wear thin as he offered to give the tree to whoever could properly guess its type. The exchange was delayed by McCrea repeatedly telling the audience to quiet down and not blurt out guesses. "It's not for the drunk frat guy that wants to get it all. We will hunt you down, you drunk piece of shit," he warned, mocking guesses.

A girl properly identified it as an apple tree ("...in Arizona?" someone nearby puzzled), and was called to the stage. She could only keep it under the condition that she would submit pictures of herself and the tree as it grew. McCrea added that we all live in the same community, and if she doesn't hold up her end of the bargain, we're encouraged to hunt her down "in the Sarah Palin sense." The crowd nervously laughed along, indicating a "too soon?" moment. McCrea paused and said dirty looks should do the trick.

Beneath the songs about hipsters, race cars, and the ideal woman is a band that supports human rights and environmentalism, and enjoys their independence from a major label. The tree guessing game was the closest McCrea came to being preachy, but managed to keep things lighthearted overall.

McCrea built a vendetta of sorts against the right side of the stage after picking sides for a "Sick of You" sing off. "I'm dividing the audience somewhat unevenly. I know it's not fair, but life is not fair, no one said it was." The right side was designated as the angry side "enjoying the gratuitous freak out that seems to be so popular in America." He warned that they will randomly explode some day, but it won't be their fault.

Before "Never There," McCrea thanked the crowd for choosing Cake over the many entertainment/sports/shopping experiences available to Arizonans. Looks like Cake beat out Weird Al, who parodies the song and also played last night.

During "Short Skirt/Long Jacket," McCrea asked, "Why do you sing louder when you're singing against someone and want them to lose?" Competition is always fun, but the fact that the audience was eager to sing along to Cake's biggest hits helped.

Cake Setlist:
1. Sad Songs and Waltzes
2. Opera Singer
3. Sheep Go To Heaven
4. Frank Sinatra
5. Arco Arena
6. Long Time
7. Mustache Man
8. Wheels
9. Sick of You
10. Jolene
11. Never There
12. Short Skirt/Long Jacket
13. Mexico
14. The Distance

The tone for Calexico was considerably different. Rather than waving arms back and forth and singing along, the crowd relaxed and enjoyed Calexico's Latino-influenced brand of mellow indie. The band broke out into an unexpected cover of The Clash's "Guns of Brixton" that was musically a bit more subdued, but stayed true to the underlying fury associated with distrust of the government.

Toward the end of their set, a ten-piece percussion section marched out and energized the crowd. Singer Joey Burns thanked the audience, said "Viva Arizona," and introduced a representative of the Border Action Network that encouraged the audience to register to vote in order to take back Arizona.

Calexico Setlist:
1. Across the Wire
2. Inspiracion
3. Alone Again or
4. Corona
5. Two Silver Trees
6. Crystal Frontier
7. Tomorrow Never Knows
8. Guero Canelo

Critic's Notebook

Last Night: Cake and Calexico at Mesa Amphitheatre.

Personal Bias: I'm not a super huge fan of Cake, but was looking forward to hearing the hits I grew up with.

The Crowd: Casual thirty-somethings. Quite a few people wore Cake shirts, but the guy sporting the wicked Sombrero made up for it.

Overheard: "Chances are if you're at a rock concert, you didn't vote for Russell Pearce."

Random Notebook Dump: Nice cat shirt, McCrea.

One Last Thing: I kinda want to go to Home Depot and buy a tree.

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