When "alternative rock" radio debuted in the early '90s -- displacing stations spinning hard rock, classic rock, hair metal, or '80s college rock -- it seemed to be a format designed to evolve. At least to a middle-school me, who imagined it to be fresh, vital, and destined to change over time along with my own tastes, like an on-air version of my favorite music magazines.
Fast forward to yesterday afternoon, when I tuned into X 103.9 to hear (in order) Bob Marley's familiar version of "Get Up, Stand Up," Shinedown's brand-new but awful "The Crow and The Butterfly," Pearl Jam's old standby "Jeremy," and Chevelle's 2002 single, "The Red."
Then fast forward to yesterday evening, when Cake took stage before an excited, oversold crowd of Gen Xers at Tempe's Marquee Theatre.
The 20-year-old Sacramento band hasn't put out a new album in six years, and hasn't had a bona fide hit in nearly a decade, since "Short Skirt/Long Jacket." That's a resume appropriate for a county fair -- not that you could tell by the reception they got here.
Surprising. Until you consider the way Cake -- along with other second-tier-in- their-time acts like Sublime and Everclear -- has been pumped up by intense play on all those unevolved Edges and Ends. So, yeah, they're still as big as they ever were, touring the shit out of mid-size theaters for a loyal fanbase that's now been listening to them for damn-near two decades.
It almost seemed to surprise them. When the crowd started an impromptu sing-along to "Haze of Love" singer John McCrea, stopped the song to excitedly ask, "Are you guys singing along?" Sure enough, they were.
Playing without a setlist, the band -- now a standard four-piece rock combo with a bonus fifth dude standing in as a novelty trumpeter/keyboardist -- did a nice rendition of a song called "Mexico," which seemed a lot like it could be a Roger Clyne ballad, and was only slightly spoiled by the standard SB 1070/immigration lecture we got.
Mixing in tracks from across their catalog -- Cake's very first single, 1993's "Rock 'N' Roll Lifestyle" was right next to their last big one, 2001's "Love You Madly" -- the band seemed refreshed but tight on the first night of their tour.
Playing without support, Cake split their show into two sets. McCrea was charming through gimmicks like giving away an apple tree to a concertgoer who promised to care for it and submit photos to the band's web site.
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A sing-along to "Sheep Go to Heaven" was a warm-and-fuzzy moment just as Gen-Xy as a frappucino-stained Old Navy hoodie with a copy of Reality Bites tucked into hand-warmer pocket, and was a nice way to leave things before the break between sets.
The second set started out slowly, playing several songs from their unreleased and unnamed upcoming record, one of which has a memorable breakdown sing-along.
"Never There" whipped the crowd onto a frenzy and after a short encore break "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" brought the house down.
That was the peak, and probably would have been the best place to quit, but that's never been Cake's style. After all, prolonging the magic is sort of trademark for them.
So, instead, they went, "The Distance." The moment wasn't quite as exciting, but if there's ever been a more apt metaphor, I'm hard-pressed to think of it.
Last Night: Cake at Marquee Theatre.
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Better Than: Most other legacy acts.
Further Listening: How about a little LCD Soundsystem's This Is Happening. Since, ya know, it's happening now, and is awesome.
Random Detail: Why do so many bands with dudes in fanciful hats draw dudes wearing fanciful to their shows?
One More Thing: Obviously I enjoy both alternative rock and alternative rock radio -- I grew up on this music. I'm not saying it's terrible things haven't evolved, but it is interesting.