will survive: Cake at the Palace.
Theatre, Sept. 30
are just sliding into focus, though not sharp focus, as a
distinct time for nostalgia. And certainly the band Cake,
with their deadpan novelty hit “The Distance,” belong in those
hallowed halls of pop-culture remembrance. Nevertheless, Cake
proved at the Palace Theatre last Tuesday that they were more
than just a nostalgia or novelty act. Cake also showed that
for every chant-sung, booty-shaking dash of archness and irony,
they also possessed genuine melodic gifts and were a tight-as-hell
unit with road-tested chops.
have gone through a number of lineup permutations since the
mid-’90s days when “The Distance” and an ironic cover of Gloria
Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” ran the charts. (They also saw some
chart action off of the 1998 single “Never There.”) The Sacramento,
Calif., group have continued to tour, though, drawing a steady
following. A big part of their appeal seems to be those big-booty
basslines and danceable drum grooves. It wasn’t too long into
the concert when a whole lot of awkward white folks started
eagerly shaking their collective booty, with the pot smoke
lacing the air.
all of that, though, Cake possessed a real sense of poise
and purpose from the first moment they hit the stage, and
musically, they were all business. John McCrea, in his trademark
fedora and full beard, was an able ringleader, putting the
band through the paces and moving between his monotone rap-singing
and some actual, and decent, singing that was fully devoid
of irony. The rhythm section was tight as nails, whether dwelling
in funk, metal, or country, and Vincent DiFiore added some
affecting mariachi-meets-Herb Alpert ephemera on trumpet.
compelling, however, was guitarist Xan McCurdy, who has been
a part of the band since the late 1990s. A pixie-ish blonde
guy with a short, mod haircut, tight jeans, and an old red
Merle Haggard tour shirt, McCurdy asserted himself on the
first number, an outstanding and pretty cover of “Ruby, Don’t
Take Your Love to Town,” the Kenny Rogers and the First Edition
hit from 1969 (written by Mel Tillis). McCurdy laid down some
Bakersfield-style trills that called to mind James Burton
behind Elvis in the late ’60s. At other points, McCurdy worried
out slinky leads and dashing colors, and yet at others he
bombed the audience with sizeable, clotted power chords. McCurdy,
playing one hollow-body guitar all evening, seemed to have
a variety of languages in his arsenal.
band were strong on the lovely Kenny Rogers tune, they were
similarly successful on their own gorgeous ballad “Mexico,”
a countrified waltz with echoes of Bob Dylan. (Prior to the
song, McCrea joked about the extinction of 3/4 time.) Nevertheless,
most of the Cake followers seemed to really get off on the
sing-songy stuff, especially those that invited participation.
“Sheep Go to Heaven” flooded the aisles with the booty shakers
from the first funky gutbucket strums of McCrea’s tiny but
fully wired acoustic guitar. Then the entire audience ravenously
chanted along to the refrain “Sheep go to heaven, goats go
to hell.” The band also ripped gleefully into Black Sabbath’s
“War Pigs.” Here McCrea’s deadpan style perfectly suited Ozzy
Osbourne’s, and McCurdy was a battery of man-sized guitar.
Cake, as is their nature, also found something funky deep
in the grooves of the Sabbath tune and infused it with ’70s
hardcore urban funk touches.
song also points to the Cake’s politics, which hew way left.
Performing before a nature backdrop painting, the group proved
to be fervent environmentalists, as McCrea brought the show
to a halt to give away a small tree that had been front and
center onstage. The sapling went to the audience member who
could guess what percentage of the world’s population had
potable water. (Yeah, it’s frighteningly low.) The group’s
Web site also has a pretty strong anti-capitalist statement
on the entry page, and Cake recently took their recording
studio off the grid to power it with solar energy. The political
statements were pretty low-key, though.
all, particularly via the music and a tight, dynamic performance,
Cake were a pleasant surprise, showing that they were a vital
performing entity with a life that extended way beyond ’90s
hit-dom. I didn’t expect much and got a whole lot more than
I bargained for. In fact, I’d see them again.
Taylor and Pauline Oliveros
at her “deep listening” workshop earlier in the day, Pauline
Oliveros mentioned that the Experimental Media and Performing
Arts Center at RPI far exceeded her wildest expectations for
the venue, she, no doubt, spoke for most who attended the
weekend’s opening events. The building is strange and gorgeous,
like some alien hive heretofore known only in dream- or cyberspace.
But it’s more than some byzantine display of technical prowess
or lofty ideals; every crevice of the space is engineered
for utility. As Oliveros explained, hearing is the physical
act of receiving sonic waveforms that translate into electrical
impulses to be processed in the auditory cortex. Listening,
though, is something far more mysterious. The type of music
that Oliveros and piano legend Cecil Taylor create is one
that demands the deepest sort of listening. The concert hall
at EMPAC, then, with acoustics sensitive enough to function
as an extension of the outer ear, was the perfect device through
which to apprehend the duo’s performance.
appeared from a door in back of the stage to begin his solo
set. Dressed in a gray tunic, black wind pants, and tall tie-dye
socks, he carried himself with the same intense jest he would
wield with his music. Missing, however, were the trademark
dreadlocks the 79-year-old has worn for the bulk of his career.
Wasting no time, he propped his music on the spot-lit piano
and delivered the opening tone-poem of the unnamed composition.
opening minutes of his performance, it was clear why Taylor
has spent the bulk of his career spurning the “jazz” moniker
while simultaneously representing its outermost branch. Having
disregarded any notion of “swing” long ago, what he delivered
had far more in common with contemporary classical exposition
than free-jazz modality. If jazz is paradox by definition,
then Taylor adds an extra loop. Each fractured phrase bore
the dynamism of an improvised solo, captured within the witness
of composition, and then performed (again) with the moment-
conscious vigor of improvisation. While certain passages would
eventuate upon a blues riff, the architectural logic of the
piece far surpassed anything that could be considered vernacular.
Certain chords sounded brown like paint spilled in a puddle,
the primary and secondary colors leaking out of the supersaturated
mix. While Sun Ra would pursue the alienating exoticism of
dissonance into outer realms and Ornette Coleman would ride
it toward gilded palisades, Taylor works this inner grayscale
in a manner that becomes textural. If the metaphor may be
taken one step further, then each of his two compositions
took shape like sculptures of stacked, teetering ideas. In
the end, though, the listener was never permitted the macro
view, and each piece came to rest on a feature as subordinate
as the one on which it began.
from the crowd, Oliveros took a solitary seat with the accordion
on her lap. Inhaling and then exhaling with the bellows of
her instrument, she commenced a droning phrase. While Taylor
was quite staccato, Oliveros washed the audience with patient
sustain. Between controlled flourishes on the melodic keys
of her instrument, she let dissonant pitches oscillate against
one another, luxuriating in the subtle vibrations. Unmiked,
Oliveros seemed to explore the sonic potential of the room
with the accordion’s higher frequencies in the way Taylor
had with the low end of his piano. At her most frenetic, she
made her instrument sound like a forest of birds with no two
alike and some more loquacious than others. Twirling on her
swiveling stool to phase the drone’s trajectory, she finally
brought the improvisation to a close.
RPI President Shirley Ann Jackson speaks of creative minds
creating new forms of art the way colliding particles create
new forms of matter, it’s collaborations like the one between
Oliveros and Taylor to which she refers. Like a fireside narrative
rife with hijinks, cliff-hangers, deception and pursuit, the
two performed a conversational third set of music that alone
seemed to justify the venue’s construction.