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They will survive: Cake at the Palace.

Photo: Martin Benjamin

Alternative Energy

By Erik Hage


Palace Theatre, Sept. 30

The 1990s 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.

Cake 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.

Beyond 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.

Most 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.

If the 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.

The latter 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 in 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.

No Boundaries

Cecil Taylor and Pauline Oliveros

EMPAC, Oct. 5

When, 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.

Taylor 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.

In the 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.

Emerging 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.

When 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.

—Josh Potter

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