Cake: The Fillmore, San Francisco, CA 2/16/11

For some bands, aging gracefully means continually changing and evolving, so as not to get stuck in the past and bound to old ways.  There are a select few bands, however, who have developed a musical formula is so natural and timeless that there’s no need for it to ever change (see AC/DC).  These bands’ music ages like fine wine, and it is easy to take their collective output as a single, continuous, fairly interchangeable body of work.  If there’s a modern band that fits this description, Cake unquestionably wins for their unwavering commitment over the years to the quintessential “Cake sound.”  And it appears that the market for their finely-crafted music is as strong as ever, as the band quite unexpectedly sold out four nights in a row at the Fillmore.  Not bad for a band that just released their first album in seven years.

Right from the start of the show, the atmosphere for the third night of this run was jubilant.  Bottom line, Cake’s music holds a special place in many, many people’s hearts, and over the course of two sets, the band delivered hit after solid gold hit to an audience that ate up every catchy hook and knew every word.  Lead singer John McCrea was extra-talkative on this night, and seemed completely down-to-earth and comfortable in his own shoes.  First and foremost, the show’s focus was completely on the songs themselves, which were all played exactly as we remembered them, with few embellishments to be had.  Let us list the sing-along smash hits that Cake delivered in rapidfire succession: “Sheep Go to Heaven.” “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” “Comanche.” “Frank Sinatra.” “Love You Madly.”  “Stick Shifts and Safety Belts.”  Shall I go on?  Indeed, it was a show steeped in nostalgia, yet with a foot firmly rooted in the present.  New songs such as “Bound Away” and “Federal Funding” fit seamlessly into the setlist, and could have just as easily been written in 1994.

McCrea’s droll, tongue-in-cheek delivery of infectious melodies is at the heart of all these tunes, and when combined with the clean, gorgeous trumpet leads of Vince DiFiore, the resulting musical concoction is hard to resist.  The rest of the band was spot-on tight, delivering every tune’s country-tinged funky swagger with a studio-like discipline.  The musicians’ lack of embellishment and experimentation was an interesting approach to a live performance, but it completely worked thanks to the strength of the songs themselves, which were all just so damn catchy and ingrained in everyone’s psyches that nothing more was needed to satiate our palates.  Everything was very well-played, but the show’s energy mainly came from the crowd’s recognition of the songs – the night was more about familiarity with the material than being musically surprised, and that’s totally okay when it comes to Cake’s music, as it’s just so damn fun.

The only lull in the show came when McCrea attempted to give a tree away to one lucky person (a Cake concert tradition).  His banter was endless, yet witty, casual, and engaging. The crowd was made to guess what type of tree it was, and it took at least ten minutes of back-and-forth yelling and guessing before someone guessed right and the show continued (it was an asian pear tree).  What followed was the highlight of the night for me as the band busted into “Jolene,” a hard-rocking, funky number with a darker edge than the rest.  Gutarist Xan McCurdy took one of his only solos of the night, and it was clean, tight, and awesome.  And of course, as always, the entire crowd sang along.  A special treat followed when the band encored with a Cake-ified version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” complete with a mildly funky groove, organ and trumpet.  Top it off with “Never There,” and you’ve got one hell of a fun show.

I’ve been to few shows in recent memory where I’ve seen such audience participation as this –  most of the audience was ecstatically singing along with every song all night.  These shows could easily have been billed as “A Celebration of the Music of Cake, performed by Cake.”  Many people came of age with this band as the soundtrack, and both band and audience seemed deeply grateful for the other’s presence on this night –  the love in the room was palpable.  Perhaps John McCrea was being a little too humble when he said, “Thank you for remembering that we exist.” It’s clear that we do, and comforting to know that Cake is still doing what they do best after all these years

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