If one were to compare Cake's mainstream success to the dating scene‚ the relationship would be a "friends with benefits" arrangement. Since the early '90s‚ Cake have served as pop music's fallback girl. Sure the band has had a few short-lived flings with popularity (e.g. 1996's "The Distance" and 2001's "Short Skirt/Long Jacket")‚ and they've always been reliable for the occasional random hookup (soundtrack work in countless TV shows and movies like The Sopranos and Orange County)‚ but the mainstream has no problem ignoring Cake's phone calls when it has other plans.
It's been four years since Cake have released a proper studio album‚ so needless to say there hasn't been much mainstream lovin' as of late. But fortunately‚ Cake haven't been sitting in a bedroom looking at old yearbooks and reminiscing about how great it was to be cool -- the band released a solid 2007 b-sides album and are working on an upcoming studio album in between tour dates. So despite pop radio dormancy‚ the group members gathered loyal fans and rowdy Colby students into Wadsworth Gymnasium to remind everybody they can still rock.
Although excited about the band itself‚ I had initial reservations about having my first live Cake experience in a college gym‚ a type of venue that can be hit or miss in the acoustics department. But seeing as the band were actually in my home state‚ and I had been regretting skipping Cake's January 2005 show at Higher Ground for nearly four years‚ I decided it wouldn't be a good idea to miss out again. My worries immediately vanished when the band took the stage playing clean‚ loud and inspired versions of trumpet-tinged college radio rock.
In the spirit of their albums‚ the band members went genre hopping through songs with influences from metal to country to hip-hop‚ with frontman John McCrea carefully enunciating his blend of half-rapping‚ half-monotone-lecturing vocals along the way. Early highlights included older hits like the moody jazz of "Frank Sinatra" and "Rock and Roll Lifestyle‚" the band's humorous commentary on hard-partying‚ big-spending concertgoers‚ from their debut album‚ Motorcade Of Generosity. The songs didn't vary immensely from studio takes‚ but the enthusiasm the band injected into the songs was consistently matched by a rowdy crowd that maintained Friday-night fever despite a strict no-alcohol policy.
As the night continued‚ Cake drew material from every studio album‚ performing mild radio hits like "Wheels" and "Never There" to anything but mild responses. One of my personal highlights came with a cover of "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath. Although I've seen the Flaming Lips absolutely own this song before‚ and it's hard to follow in the footsteps of classic Ozzy‚ McCrea's distinct flow and the band's capability to play practically any genre helped Cake make the cover great in its own right.
Throughout the night‚ Cake played in a fairly straightforward manner‚ hitting every note the same way as they had in the studio except with a little bit more intensity. Everything sounded clear and concise‚ but McCrea's vocals seemed more urgent‚ and the instrumentation got a hell of a lot louder. In between songs‚ McCrea kept things interesting by offering politically charged food for thought and even giving away a tree. Rather than saying hello‚ McCrea used the first song break to offer the tree to anybody who could guess what kind it was‚ under the guidelines that the lucky fan would plant the tree and send Cake a picture of it for the band's website. Antics like this eliminated any dull moments from the set‚ even if they weren't completely understood by every fan.
Fortunately‚ sidebars like the tree giving didn't lead to energy dissipation‚ as the band would be apt to play a fan favorite like "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" right after addressing the crowd. Cake finished the set with their breakthrough hit "The Distance‚" which had the crowd singing along and dancing‚ and me begging for another Cake show in the near future.
Although "The Distance" was a welcome closer‚ my favorite moments of the show came when Cake played lesser known songs like the bouncy "Stickshifts and Safety Belts‚" and crowd members still strained their vocal chords in wild approval. Cake hasn't been able to keep the constant fame of a lifelong pop super-group‚ but they have been able to build a rabid cult of fans that have an intense passion for their music. So maybe Cake's next album will have another chart-topping hit on it‚ or maybe it won't. Who cares? As long as Cake keeps rocking crowds‚ their legacy will continue to grow (or at least their trees will).