Last Night: Cake at the Palladium Ballroom

Palladium Ballroom
December 30, 2010

Better than (eventually): The insane traffic that was backed up from the venue, all the way down Lamar, down the ramp and onto freaking I-30.


Cake has it figured out.

For the uninitiated: The California-based nerdy rock outfit managed to not only blow up into big time stars some 14 years ago, but they've managed to stay revered ever since.

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Proof was abundant in the sold-out room of 3,000 fanatics at the Palladium Ballroom last night.

Even without a proper album release since 2004, the vibra-slapping John McRea and crew remains a full-fledged touring band that happens to have a few albums under their belt, and not the other way around. As a result, their one hour and 45 minute set was a tight monkey-fist of sleek professionalism, even with the lead Cakester claiming his voice was a bit ragged at times.

Billed as "An Evening with Cake," there wasn't an opener. And, for a change, it was nice to just walk in and get with it as the night's main event hit the stage to the electro-funk instrumental of "Arco Arena." Quickly and methodically proceeding into "Frank Sinatra" and the "Rock 'N Roll Lifestyle," it was hard to believe McRea when he intimated that the evening would be a casual affair and that they would spontaneously play the tunes that just happened to pique their interest. When McRea then mentioned that the band might "take a break if we need to later," he was setting up the crowd for a momentum-killing intermission that came only 40 minutes into the show.

Before they bolted for the first time, though, another trend revealed itself, and proved to be a pleasant reminder was that Cake can do country - and do it respectfully well. The ragged strums of McRea's beat up acoustic guitar that accompanied one of their new tunes, "Bound Away," recalling Willie Nelson's beloved guitar, Trigger. And when the very Cake-like trumpet blared with a "Ring of Fire" buoyancy, it was clear that when the band mentions its country heroes in interviews, it's not mere lip service. Such a distinction isn't shocking to any longtime Cake fan necessarily, but it's far more glaring when inspected through the scope of an 18-song performance.

While other tunes later in the night (namely and obviously, the Nelson cover "Sad Songs & Waltzes" and "Stickshifts and Safety Belts") continued down the country-strong path that had previously been laid, the band wasn't about to abandon their trademark, 1970s cop-drama, whiteboy funk. "Love You Madly," which opens like Led Zeppelin's "Good Times Bad Times" before it careens into trumpet-laden grooviness, and "Sick of You," another song from the band's upcoming album, were tight and agreeable enough.

And, in displaying a bit of sneaky diversity, Cake's psychedelic, organ-heavy take on Black Sabbath's "War Pigs," introduced a menacing darkness that scowled, whereas much of the other numbers winked and lent a smile.

Yes, Cake refreshingly dabbles in country, and sing-along numbers like "Friend Is a Four Letter Word" and "Shadow Stabbing" were solid signs that the band knows how to alt-rock when they need to. But the aforementioned, geek-funk signature sound where McRea revels in his half-speaking/half-singing is the vibe of choice amongst most Cake aficionados.

Songs from the last night's setlist like "Short Skirt/Long Jacket" (aka, theme song for the television show Chuck), main set-closer "Never There," and encore-closing/biggest hit "The Distance" are all prime examples of how Cake comes dangerously (or joyously?) close to being a Nerdcore rap act as much as a straight-up rock act.

Whatever one wants to call it: Cake does the hell out of it.

Here's the thing, though: It's easy to point out that pretty much the whole set was slathered with pouncing electric guitar that sounds roughly the same from tune to tune, that McRea's vibraslap is basically the front-man's version of a child's security blanket, and that band might cease to exist if the trumpet doesn't pop up from the side of stage in order to belt out a few notes. But that's what Cake does. The group is definitely not trying to hide those facts. To point towards those items of relative redundancy as signs of a weak set would be to miss the point entirely -- especially since they were done well, regardless.

In fact, it's really encouraging that a band can form such an unmistakable identity and carve out a dedicated place in pop culture without constantly releasing albums, generating copious amounts of blog buzz or having new songs continuously played on Top 40 radio.

It's quite remarkable, actually.

Critic's Notebook
Personal Bias:
None. Not a massive fan, not a big hater. I enjoy Cake's work enough. This was the first time I've caught them since the Fashion Nugget tour in, I think, 1996.

Random Note: Despite McRea blaming it on his failing voice, which showed very small signs of frailty, many of Cake's recent shows have featured an intermission. Opting for a momentum-killing, 20-minute break is hard to understand, since the entire evening, including intermission and encore, barely hit the two-hour mark.

By the Way: Speaking of that show from way back, it was at Deep Ellum Live, at the corner of Canton and Crowdus. I loved that place. I have no clue as to what it's being used for these days, but why doesn't someone think about resurrecting that old hangout?

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