Unlike the primary California gold (and platinum) rush of popular music acts between the 1960s and present day, most of them from Los Angeles (The Doors, Van Halen, Los Lobos, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ice-T, Jane’s Addiction, N.W.A., Maroon 5) and the San Francisco Bay area (Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana, Sly & the Family Stone, Tower of Power, Primus), Cake emerged from comparatively small-town Sacramento in 1991.
Starting out in that more conservative Northern California bastion, and with Seattle’s grunge movement and L.A. hip-hop becoming practically equidistant new, popular flavors, the quintet essentially split the difference between the two.
Vocalist/guitarist John McCrea’s phrasing on early hits like “The Distance” and a de-accelerated cover version of Gloria Gaynor’s disco smash “I Will Survive” – both from Cake’s breakthrough 1996 second album, Fashion Nugget – set the tone for the minimalist, hook-laden novelty act; one in which he doesn’t always sing, rap, or use spoken word, but rather uniquely combines all three disciplines in a tongue-in-cheek, behind-the-beat style.
Trumpeter/keyboardist/percussionist/vocalist Vincent DiFiore, the only other remaining member from Cake’s original lineup, adds further unorthodoxy to the band’s otherwise standard pop/rock lineup of guitars, bass and drums.
As night fell and the crowd grew in anticipation, and with a photo of Mt. Fuji on the back screen amid absurdly long introductory fanfare music blaring from the PA system, Cake took the stage 10 minutes late May 6 to close the final night of SunFest on the southern jetBlue Stage.
“Greetings, we are Cake, and we are here to serve you,” said McCrea before offering an explanation for the delay. “Sorry, but we’re desert people, and it’s very humid here. We’ll be re-tuning these guitars all night.”
Cake’s non-hits feature McCrea’s baritone voice in a less staccato, more traditional singing style exemplified by the band’s early selections. “Frank Sinatra,” Fashion Nugget’s opening track, led off with drummer Todd Roper using two drum sticks in his right hand for effect and singing backup along with guitarist Xan McCurdy and bassist Daniel McCallum. The versatile DiFiore, the quintet’s glue, blew through a melodica during the song’s intro and played a strong middle trumpet solo.
“Opera Singer,” the opening cut from the 2001 release Comfort Eagle, featured DiFiore’s keyboards and McCrea’s early overuse of the vibra-slap, the percussive instrument most associated with the beginning of Ozzy Osbourne’s hit “Crazy Train.” It was used to great effect in that song by being played once, yet McCrea saw fit to slap the damn thing 40-50 times during the group’s 75-minute set.
If Cake has another weakness, it’s falling into mid-tempo monotony, but the band chose a unique cover as an early remedy. Willie Nelson’s “Sad Songs and Waltzes” closed Fashion Nugget, and its slow, 6/8-timed cadence and humorous lyrics provided an early highlight. As did the original from the same album, “Stickshifts and Safetybelts,” a rare high-octane Cake burner that rode Roper’s country-tinged train beat on his snare drum to shift into higher gear and resemble the Commander Cody hit, “Hot Rod Lincoln.”
“It’s been a long time since we’ve been here,” McCrea said afterward. “How long? 2014? That’s a long time.”
The verbiage segued into “Long Time,” a funkier highlight from Cake’s latest release, Showroom of Compassion (2011), on which DiFiore, McCurdy, McCallum and Roper all impressively sang backing vocals. The drummer, though not in the original band lineup, appeared on most of Cake’s 1994 debut, Motorcade of Generosity, and its subsequent catalog. He and McCurdy, present since the late 1990s, have lent a symmetry despite a parade of bassists, who largely make up a scroll of more former than current members.
Clever sing-alongs got the now-sizable crowd involved and created other high-water marks, especially when the vibra-slap-happy McCrea strapped on an acoustic guitar to keep his hands busy otherwise. On “Sheep Go To Heaven,” from Prolonging the Magic (1998), he incited the throng into repeating both the title portion of the chorus and its equally-silly answer, “Goats go to hell.”
Seemingly avoiding playing its hits caused Cake’s set to sag midway. On “Love You Madly,” from Comfort Eagle, McCrea’s singing voice occasionally went flat, and the plodding, 3/4-timed “Mexico,” also from Prolonging the Magic, was simply flat in and of itself.
But just when you thought fans might get desperate enough to abandon Cake in favor of Pitbull, who was playing a simultaneous set on the northern Ford Stage, the greatest hits portion closed the band’s set. “Never There,” the energetic hit from Prolonging the Magic that starts with McCrea’s a cappella line of, “I need your arms around me, I need to feel your touch,” was played with spot-on precision a la the recorded original.
Next up was “The Distance,” the Fashion Nugget hit that also starts with McCrea’s unaccompanied monotone delivery of, “Reluctantly crouched at the starting line.” Yet in sapping its energy by playing it a hair slow, Cake effectively rendered its closing number reluctantly crouched.
There was time left for an encore, logically “I Will Survive,” but it was not to be. Perhaps it was because McCrea and company don’t care for the fact that a creative cover — which downshifted to put syncopation and humor into the insistent disco hit-turned-survivor’s anthem — catapulted them to fame more than their own compositions. Or that McCallum, a capable player, yet one who’s yet to appear on a Cake CD, might not recreate the percolating, Jaco Pastorius-with Blood, Sweat & Tears-esque rhythmic bass line of ex-Cake member Victor Damiani.
Or maybe it was the forthcoming fireworks show. Or the Pitbull after-concert meet-and-greet.