“This is an evening with Cake, so just sit back and relax.” –John McCrae
Most people I know hate Valentine’s Day. I know do. In San Francisco, Valentine’s Day 2011 was rainy, dismal, and cold. What plans could any of us possibly have to bring us out of our chocolate-induced intoxication, and maybe shed a little light on the holiday? If you didn’t have a date that night, you could have easily spent your evening with Cake. If you did have a date that night, you both could have probably spent your evening with Cake. The Sacramento quintet, widely known for their eccentric set lists, upbeat music, nature saving shenanigans, and use of a vibra-slap, had booked four nights at San Francisco’s world famous and historic Fillmore. Four nights does indeed seem intense for a band the magnitude of Cake. Sure, they’re famous, and they have a decent amount of material (including a new album, Showroom of Compassion), but four nights? What the hell would they play every single night?
The historic Fillmore was the perfect place for the Bay Area Cake masses to gather. It is the San Francisco venue. When you walk in, the walls welcome you with posters and rare photographs of the artists who have graced its stage. Also, you are given an apple at the door, which was a tradition Bill Graham started years and years ago. Since this was an “evening with Cake,” there were no openers. The band arrived just after the house lights fell, entering the stage to the most triumphant music ever (which may, or may not have been the score from Rocky IV). We were thanked for coming, even before the band had started to play, and then the five well-dressed guys got to work.
They started off with a true downer of a track, “Sad Songs and Waltzes”, which is a Willie Nelson song they have been covering for about a decade now. This definitely seemed like an odd choice for a starting track. You would think since it’s their first night of their run at the Fillmore, they’d want to kick it off with something with a little more POW! Instead, the somber trumpet was met with applause and some slow swaying as the band played. Not to worry, because things got exciting again really, really fast.
Cake shows are always fun. They’re not dangerous (like a punk show), and they’re not boring (like many shows); they’re just plain fun. For the band’s first set, they played a number of their classics, with a few newbies peppered in there to circulate the new material. After “Sad Songs”, the band played the instrumental segue track “Arco Arena”, a song I once told my friend “they would never play live” since it’s merely an intro to “Comfort Eagle”. Well, they played it last night, and it didn’t lead into that song, but instead, “Opera Singer”. The rest of the set included a number of greats including “Wheels” which tagged the audience to sing along, the extremely strange “Frank Sinatra”, the Orange County opening song “Shadow Stabbing”, and “Guitar” which singer John McCrae informed us was written atop a big office building in New York City.
As always, the band was right on point with their playing. Horns and keyboard player Vince DiFiore never missed a note, and belted out on that horn all night long. McCrae frequently picked up his clunky acoustic, which always has this tin-can quality to its sound that gives it this old time aesthetic as well as makes me excited. And Gabe Nelson, the bass player, was moving his fingers around like a spider, causing the floor to thump on the right notes. As usual, McCrae kept up his antics with the crowd, constantly talking about the man, the band, and how we can all be better humans. He thanked us for remembering that they exist and not “squashing them like a bug.” And he also told us if we didn’t like country music, “then fuck you.” Moments after he said that, the band played the new track “Bound Away” before departing for a brief intermission.
The second set was strictly old school, for the Cake fans that came to belt out lyrics and get funky. It seemed much more crowded for the second set, as I was no longer able to move, or dance within the crowd, but hell, it didn’t stop me from trying. The band opened the second set with their gem “Stick Shifts and Safety Belts”, which we were told was written while driving in McCrae’s car. And things definitely got weird this set. The band did a great rendition of “Love You Madly” complete with an immaculate trumpet solo from DiFiore, a cover of “War Pigs” with a bass line that thumped like an oil drum, a crowd requested rendition of “Perhaps”, a “good song off our first record” (which turned out to be “Rock and Roll Lifestyle”), and my favorite Cake song ever, “Sheep Go to Heaven”, complete with a crowd sing along.
After “Sheep”, McCrae stopped the show to give away his tree, which, to me, has always been the funniest element of the band’s shows. They are saving the world one concert at a time, and giving us a bit more oxygen and beauty in the world. The prize-winning question that night was, “What kind of tree is it?” And the answer turned out to be a Valencia Orange tree. The winner, who was standing two people away from me, was a girl named Jacquelyn who promised to plant it in her yard, and take photos of it every two years. Upon spreading O2 into the world, the band did a well-orchestrated sing along rendition of “Sick of You”, in which the left side sang one part of the breakdown, and the right sang the other. They did the same thing moments later with the set closer of “Short Skirt/Long Jacket” with the finishing “Na na na na,” as the band took a bow.
An encore wasn’t necessary per se, as the band had just rocked it and was going to be back for the next three nights, but they did it anyways which was fine with me. They started it off with the newer song “Federal Funding”, which led into “Mexico”. Prior to “Mexico”, McCrae thanked us for coming, which prompted me to believe this was the last song. This would have been the strangest Valentine’s Day ever if it was, because that would be a starting and ending on two very sad songs. But of course, the band launched right into “The Distance” for that sonic punch of a finale.
After that, they left the stage, we filed out of the Fillmore, and everyone made sure to grab one more apple and their poster before heading out into the rain. Many people covered their dates with jackets, or just chatted amongst their friends about the show, but I could tell nobody exiting that show had a bad Valentine’s Day. Sure, a Cake concert isn’t a budding place for romance, but it’s a place to feel alive, human, and important (Why else would the crowd engage in all that singing?). Those are the things people strive for every V-Day with cards and candy, but a Cake concert will always do me just find. Everybody leaving seemed to feel the same way judging by their chatter and faces. It just appears that sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.