The entire ethos of alt-rock icons Cake can perhaps be embodied in one picture, taken as part of a promotional photo shoot for the band. In it, lead singer John McCrea stands apart from his instrumentalists, all of whom lean unassumingly against a wall of dark wood paneling. McCrea is several steps away from them, closer to the camera — so close that the upper half of his face and his eyes, covered by amber sunglasses, hardly make it into the picture —and he's donning brown pants, a beige windbreaker, and a white T-shirt depicting a very serious-looking kitten wearing an American flag bandanna around its neck.
Taking this into consideration, the grandiose, five minute-long combined light-show-and-synthesizer introduction that began the band’s show Tuesday night at San Francisco's Fillmore might not seem so strange. Rather, it was entirely in step with the band’s current direction as it progresses on its Showroom of Compassion World Tour. The passive-aggressive eccentricity; the unapologetic or un-self-conscious spontaneity; the balancing act between predictability and weirdness: it's all an inherent part of the decades-old band's MO.
Despite the road-weariness and malaise that can tempt bands to see each individual show as just one inconsequential step in the giant journey of a tour, Tuesday’s show presented a textbook example of good hospitality. From the show's atypical beginning, the band continued to find new ways to integrate the same combination of mocking irony and straightforward honesty that propelled them to commercial success and geek-rock relevance throughout the past two decades. McCrea, now in his mid-forties, appeared onstage wearing a gray peacoat, orange hoodie, and a trucker hat emblazoned with the image of a mustache. An awkward stoicism laced with a few laconic introductory comments soon gave way to a friendlier stage presence as McCrea picked up a battered acoustic-electric guitar, adorned with a single “I Voted” sticker, and started strumming the leads to some of the Sacramento band's biggest hits.“This is a song about big problem in today's world, bigger than even the banking crisis,” McCrea drolly declared before launching into their 1994 hit “Pentagram,” whose lyrics include both references to Satanic initiation rituals and tacit gibes at groupthink mentality: “Well, I have passed the test just like all the rest/But never really understood the reasons why I took it in the first place...”
Every moment that seemed ripped straight from the pages of some self-indulgent, psychedelic prophecy was matched with strong interactions with the audience — and, at numerous points, attempts to edify them as well. “Who knows the year Gutenberg invented the printing press?” McCrea asked during a break between the heavily country-influenced songs of the show's first half, offering up a signed broadside book of the band's recent single, “Bound Away,” as motivation. “No, don't yell it. Raise your hands quietly.”
It was only after McCrea expressed his profound disappointment at the hoi polloi's apparent ignorance of the date, that someone did answer correctly - and even he had looked up the year (1440) on his iPhone. Despite this, McCrea handed him the prize, and went on to talk about the band's work with the San Francisco Center for the Book, with whom it has collaborated to produce a series of handbook publications centering around songs from the newest album. According to McCrea, who took a solid five minutes to talk about the project and prompt listeners to look at an on-site sample, the paper used for the creation of the books will be made from the band members' old clothes. “Now would be a good time to visit your friends, avoid your enemies, and” — the characteristically quirky singer paused for a breath — “if you have no friends and do not want to do illegal drugs, go look at our book.”
These tangents about side projects and historical figures from eons past were only some of several instances when McCrea departed from the setlist to address the crowd in some way. At one point, a tree that had remained onstage since the show's start was given away, but only after a relatively lengthy interrogation of the crowd to find someone fit for the “adult responsibility” of taking care of the tree and sending yearly photo updates to the band. “We get a lot of hate mail about this,” McCrea confessed semi-comically. “E-mails that say, 'I came to hear all of the songs—quickly! Give me them!'” The winner, a girl with dyed hair named Rachel who correctly guessed that the plant was a lemon tree, pointed out that her hair color might be different in future pictures. The singer couldn't pass up an opportunity to turn an innocuous comment into a sardonic witticism. “Yes, that's fine, you have hair-color freedom,” he said. “That's why we're in Iraq and Afghanistan, for hair-color freedom.”
Political references were masterfully intermingled with music at random throughout the night. “You're either with us, or you're against us,” McCrea said as he instigated a singing competition between two sides of the audience. It wasn’t the only moment that the musician's tongue-in-cheek irreverence would devolve into political commentary, and it certainly wasn't the last time he would mockingly paraphrase former President George W. Bush. “They hate you for your freedom and your prosperity,” he would later say to one side of the audience as he encouraged them to raise their voices.
McCrea and his band-mates also took time to talk about their growing popularity among more mainstream music fans —a topic particularly relevant given that Showroom of Compassion, an album continuing in the same oddball, slightly Beatles-esque vein as all of the group's other efforts, debuted at the number 1 spot on the Billboard 200. McCrea confessed that it was weird for the group when this happened; that we all know “Cake isn't meant to be number one.”
After ending the first set with the new single “Long Time,” the band launched into a second set that included hits from both its newest album and old classics, including “Mustache Man (Wasted)” and “Opera Singer.” For several songs, including “Bound Away,” pedal steel guitar player Charlie Wallace joined the band, lending its sound the swooning, wavering voice of that instrument. After apparently concluding with the much-loved hit song “Never There,” from 2001’s Prolonging the Magic, the band returned for a three-song encore. After starting the encore with “Federal Funding,” the parody of bureaucracy from their new album, and the song “Comanche,” the group ended the roughly two hour-long show with a reverential gesture for those who had trekked through rainy Japantown on a Tuesday night to see them: by playing their famous ode to a hypothetical love, “Short Skirt/Long Jacket.”
By the show's conclusion, McCrea's temperament had transversed the entire spectrum of possible personalities, creating not only an entertaining vibe but a familial one as well. “We know that especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, you have tons of entertainment options and sporting events to choose from,” McCrea said near the show's end. “Thank you for buying our recorded music and thank you for your support.” When the band reappeared for an encore, McCrea was once against profuse with his appreciation for his fans. In a world where it's common for bands to not return for an encore or to simply bask in the popularity, earned or unearned, of their commercial success, Cake’s attitude—and McCrea’s in particular — was a refreshing return to the acknowledgment that the relationship between a band and their listeners is a two-way street. It takes somebody to make and mix the batter, but somebody to pay the baker at the end of the day.