Cake Houston Press Best of Houston® BestFest Midtown Superblock September 25, 2011
We're not sure if Cake lead singer John McCrea is genuinely a cantankerous prick, or if he simply pretends to be one onstage because he finds it amusing to do so. The end result is largely the same: An occasionally vexed audience noticeably put off by his crotchety grumblings about everything from the stage crew to his fellow bandmates.
Yet what could better befit the man's personality? Fans of Cake will no doubt be familiar with McCrea's sarcastic, smart-assed lyrics, aided by his deadpan delivery. The guy can actually sing quite well, but usually he just prefers to speak his lyrics in immaculately enunciated meter. McCrea wants his lyrics to be understood.
His persona... maybe not.
It was a long, hot day at the first-ever Best of Houston® BestFest, and also been more fun than we've had in quite some time. The bands were great, the vendors were for the most part cool and local, and just about everyone we knew was there.
Cake closed out the day, immediately following a fantastic set from Houston native Hayes Carll, as warm and likeable a front man as you can imagine. Perhaps following him is what made Cake start their set off with their cover of Willie Nelson's "Sad Songs and Waltzes."
A canny move, as it made the transition between Carll's country jukebox Americana and Cake's beatnik alternative somewhat less jarring. McCrea didn't talk much at first, instead letting the songs speak for themselves, playing mostly new material off January's Showroom of Compassion for the first half of their set. Towards the end of the new material is where, in fact, the grousing started.
McCrea started in on the backstage crew for their apparent failure to make a lone, smallish disco ball suspended high in the rafters work properly. "It's our only piece of unique lighting and you guys can't get it to work. Did you even try? Did you just try once and then give up? Try jiggling the wire. Unplug it and then plug it back in, that always works."
He toed the line between lighthearted kidding, and sincere irritation. The crowd tittered nervously, then sparse boos began fluttering up. (Boos meant for McCrea or the lighting crew, we don't know.)
Later on, McCrea said something along the lines of "I was kind of hoping these other guys would make something special of these songs tonight, but I guess that's not going to happen," referring to his bandmates. They didn't react at all. In fact, not one of them said a single word the entire night. Not even so much as a "Hello."
Aftermath spent a lot of time wondering if we should be getting pissed off on behalf of all the folks McCrea was laying into, or if he was being satirical and we JUST DIDN'T GET IT, MAAAAAAN, and then we realized it didn't really matter, it was all part of the ride. He was alternating between grumpiness and what seemed like genuine gratitude to be closing out the festival.
At one point, he even launched into one of those "this half of the room must sing louder than the other half of the room" contests favored by cover bands and bad rap acts the world over, and turned the whole bit into parody by pretending that the opposing sides were somehow legitimate socio-political enemies.
"This half of the room wants you to be weak! They want everyone to be weak!" he challenged. Once Aftermath cottoned on to what he was doing, we laughed pretty hard.
Cake's musicianship, however, was nothing to laugh about. For a band who went six years without releasing any new material, they're a remarkably solid unit. Every song went off without a hitch, and the guys had energy to spare, particularly McCrea and trumpet player/keyboardist Vince DiFiore.
And that was the most important thing about the show: McCrea could have been an unambiguous, puppy-kicking Nazi up there and it wouldn't have mattered (much), as long as the band had performed as snappily as they did.
So what if we caught a bit of snark? They worked their asses off, and it shone through whatever else was going on. In the end, they brought the house down with a double encore, and even invited us to come see them play in a few days in Mexico City.
Now that was darned polite.
Personal Bias: Loved Fashion Nugget, but didn't keep up with Cake after that as well as we should have.
The Crowd: A little bit tired, a little bit drunk, and a little bit high, and at times not sure what to make of McCrea, but absolutely digging the music.
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Overheard In the Crowd: "He's being such an asshole!" But also lots of singing along.
Random Notebook Dump: We never realized how much McCrea relies on the vibraslap until we saw him perform live. It undeniably fits Cake's sound, but... he uses it a lot, you guys! Oh, who cares.