Sunday, July 19, 2009

Concert Review Series: Sheep Go To Heaven, Goats Go To Hell

Yesterday, the summer weather set the scene for Baltimore's free Artscape Festival while CAKE serenaded an audience from all walks of life. As the sun began to hide behind the roof of the Maryland Institute College of Art, the crowd clothed the once naked grass hill and patiently awaited the sun's disappearance after staring into the firey-heavens in anticipation of the band's early evening set.

Aside from the UV ray damage to my eyes, Cake made the show worth the wait. John McCrea and crew came to the crowd with a confident stride, opening with "Stickshifts and Safetybelts," an ode to America's oil addiction. The band's confidence in juxtaposition to the nervous pacing of the River City Reservation, who put on a valiant effort with a smaller, unfamiliar crowd amidst a less than superb mix (I could not hear the banjo player or the cellist throughout the whole set). Cake played a solid hour-and-a-half set to the packed grassy ampitheater.

As I tried to explain to my grandmother why I needed to leave work early to see a band named after a dessert, I realized that Cake is a difficult band to describe to a non-listener (I was not even going to try to explain the phenomenon of Cake fans holding up store-bought cakes in the air). The Artscape bill listed Cake as "alternative rock," a loaded label in itself. Their sound is distinct with McCrea's carefree monotone voice, Xan McGurdy's jangly guitars, a variety of synth-sounds, a solid rhythm section, topped off with the peppering of Vince DiFiore's trumpet, yet their band's essence remains troublesome to define to outsiders.

While Cake certainly sees themselves as a band with something to say, having taken on topics such as global warming, social philosophy, and religion in their songs and their frequent updates on their website, the band manages to avert the self-righteous attitude of rock's Bono-fied arena activism. Cake possesses an ironic self-awareness that is a breath of fresh air given rock and roll's ubiquitous ego problems. As the band began the soft and somber, Spanish guitar laden tune, "Mexico," McCrea deadpanned that the saddest loss of the new millenium was the death of the 3/4 time signature in popular music, explaining that its disappearance is "why there is no hope."

Cake certainly understands not to take themselves too seriously. After playing the song "Rock and Roll Lifestyle," which turns a mirror to the excesses of the rock consumer's upper middle class luxury, McCrea assures the fans, almost facetitiously, that the song is not about them. He asserts that Cake has "civilized listeners" as puffs of smoke rise in the sky and a few drunken fans yell in response to his playful taunting. McCrea's banter between songs had the crowd laughing, even as he scolded one side for not singing loud enough as he had directed them.

McCrea balanced his chiding of the audience with words of encouragement as he conducted the crowd through the band's 90's hit, "Sheep Go To Heaven," calling for the "powerful people" to "make powerful music" while also repeating "go to hell" as the fans sang. In my experience of concert going, I have not seen many mobs as tame as the Cake audience. While some fans were distinguishable as Cake fans with their pseudo-hipster-meets-hippie "alternative" attire from the time that one saw them waiting for the subway to take them into the main stage, the diverse audience defied any stereotype or demographic. Later, during "Short Skirt Long Jacket," McCrea concluded the song with a spacey, yet poetic mantra about coexistance exclaiming, "See? Everyone can get along! There's no us and them. We don't have to fight each other" slyly adding, "or do we?"