Cake at TasteFest
Detroit, July 1, 2004
Going on its tenth official year, Cake has certainly punched the rock clock long enough to warrant a fanbase bonus. But it wasn’t until the Sacramento combo’s appearance at Detroit’s TasteFest that I saw firsthand their motorcade of anonymity. Sprinkled through a societal cross-section typical of any free fest were little fiefs of geekdom, splinter cells of awkward whitebreads waiting to witness the sardonic gospel of John McCRea. It was summer in the city, and the Cake fan archetype was on the prowl.
I always attributed my only passing interest in Cake to the limitations of their signature sound. From “Rock & Roll Lifestyle” to “Never There,” their tasty sonic hodgepodges certainly went the distance. Still, they were empty calories. A sit-down listen to Fashion Nugget conjured conceptions of weed-smoking college professors crossing Pavement with King Missile, but it wasn’t rewarding beyond a few spins or chuckles. Cake was sort of like “Will & Grace” – witty enough, but you’re not making time for it. That indifference led me to cut out of 2002’s Endless Sunshine tour early, after the Wayne Coyne confetti drop but before McCrea and Co. could take the stage. “Fuck Cake,” someone said at the time, but that was too harsh. True, their drollness probably wouldn’t have jibed with Flaming Lips’ near-religious fervor. But Cake had somehow carved out a respectable slice of the increasingly bland modern rock, uh, pie. They were veterans, deserved of some goddamn respect.
So, sheepish, I arrived at TastFest. A respectable crowd had gathered, average for the main stage at any street fair. Strollers and lolling-tongued dogs mixed amiably with slim jean’d downtowners and leather fanny pack suburbanites. A dad stood beside the sound tent, heroically consuming a messy plate of cheese fries while deftly keeping track of at least three rowdy ankle biters. Amazing, and not a drop of chili on his pressed Panama Jack weekender shirt. I secured a beer, and settled in next to a crowd of slender cougars.
As I waited, absentmindedly deciding Esquivel was appropriate pre-show music for Cake, I noticed something interesting a few rows up. A kid of about 20 was standing in the aisle, doing a sort-of slow-motion Elaine dance for the benefit of two buddies. He was gawky, with nice-try facial hair and pallid, post-acne skin. Grey athletic socks lined the insides of his blocky fashion sandals. On his head was perched a straw porkpie, the sort of hat favored by smart kids who fancy themselves mildly eccentric. It wasn’t present at the moment, but a grandfatherly pipe was undoubtedly tucked in a pocket of his cargo shorts. He continued his goofy dance while I took in his pals. The big one was exactly that – a little bit awkward in his skin, and hunched, like he was perpetually sorry for blocking the view. He was just hanging back, the way big guys sometimes do. It was Porkpie and Fezzik’s other friend that broke the seal on Cake’s secret fanbase, the one I should’ve realized they had along, but had never stuck around to really see. Sporting the short sides/long top look common amongst theater majors, Porkpie’s pal struck up an impromptu version of Cake’s “Satan Is My Motor” as he laughed with his friends. His black athletic shoes led to cut off black fatigue pants; these only accessorized his oversized black T-shirt, a promotional job advertising – yep – Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas. These were them, the Cake fans, the real reason for the band’s duration.
Cake eventually took the stage, and delivered a capable set dominated by McCrea’s engagingly dry wit and mild anti-Bush sloganeering. Plagued by atrocious sound but soldiering mightily on, the band soon had the crowd happily dancing and singing along. They even tried a few new tunes, and had the balls to fuck up and not even care about starting them over. “Here’s a new song written for Detroit,” McCrea smirked at one point, and launched into a typically Cake-ish funk-hop number about how shitty carbon monoxide is. Vince DiFiore’s trumpet was even more unique live, and the mild hints of synth and electronic programming meshed nicely with McCrea and his supporting guitarist’s flat, fuzzy tones. The fun Prolonging the Magic cut “Sheep Go to Heaven” was a set highlight, as was their cynically cool version of “I Will Survive,” which somehow never gets old. I was happy to perform my penance for bitching out on their 2002 gig; they made my penance as pleasant as I thought it might be.
But even so, as Cake played I became more interested in the wack pack in front me, and finding more of their representatives throughout the crowd. Too young to have discovered They Might be Giants in their prime, these types had embraced Cake’s similar sense of sarcasto-pop as their own. Not into the ganja enough to hang with the trustafarians, the Cake fans were nevertheless of a piece with the corduroy crowd, as they seemed to do a variation of that famous whirling dance. Across the way from Porkpie’s gang I discovered another pocket of crazy, this one featuring no less than three guys who looked just like John McCrea. Scrunched cowboy hats, beards, laundry-faded pattern tees – the whole bit. And out behind the seats a circle of hippies danced, proving the link between them and the freaky pieces of Cake’s main constituency. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, this discovery of another country. But I guess my own relative disinterest in Cake’s output soured me on thinking anyone would truly love them. This is unfair, as every band in the world deserves its own peeps, whether it’s a bunch of elitist fucks, a gaggle of girlfriends, a bored weeknight bar staff, or a tight-knit crowd of happily nerdy kids in thrift store suits and affected haberdashery.
We’re all just trying to afford our rock and roll lifestyle.