the driver’s seat: Cake’s John McCrea.
photo: Joe Putrock
Lights, Dec. 11
is . . . almost a folk song,” John McCrea of Cake explained
to a woozy throng of drunken college kids and modern-rock-radio
listeners gathered at Northern Lights. “It’s so useful for
so many different kinds of people—macho dickhead soccer fans
in France; effete pansy-ass gay people in the U.S.” The lengthy
preface was half-irony, half- reprimand—moments prior, the
band had returned for their second (planned) encore to find
a sizeable portion of the audience had already shifted toward
the exit. As the quirky Sacramento-based quintet set into
“I Will Survive,” the audience collectively nodded, as if
to say, “Oops, we forgot about that one.”
It’s amazing that Cake haven’t been forgotten about altogether.
When they first made their mark with “The Distance” (from
1996’s Fashion Nugget), they came off as a welcome,
er, alternative to the grunge-heavy alt-rock of the
day. Lighter in tone, playful, and a good lot more interesting
than Bush or Everclear, they also had a unique sound that
stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of Cobaininites. The
band have refused to change with the times, and their status
as one of the most successful novelty acts of the day—this
is the group who once sang of a land where “large fuzzy dice
still hang proudly like testicles from rearview mirrors”—has
constantly threatened their validity. After all, jokes get
old, and between nü-metal and Lindsay Lohan, popular music
has been all but sucked dry of its sense of humor.
Thankfully, Cake have managed to navigate the jagged waters
of a fickle music industry on two major strengths: John McCrea’s
literate and oddly melodic songwriting, and the aforementioned
signature sound. Granted, they’ve reached a critical mass
of sorts—the 1,000-or-so fans that turned out on Saturday
are likely, with little variation, the same 1,000-or-so that
would have shown up at any point in the band’s career—but
in this day and age, a loyal fan base is about all a band
can ask for.
To reward the dedicated locals who haven’t had a crack at
seeing the band since their last area performance (Empire
State Plaza, 1994), the group divided their set fairly evenly
between their five albums, recapping the most familiar tunes
from each, with the only obvious omission being the catchy-but-pedestrian
“Short Skirt, Long Jacket.” A wise move—the audience sang
along with practically every word of what they heard, especially
tunes from the breakthrough albums Fashion Nugget and
Prolonging the Magic.
By alternating jokey, observational fare (“Rock & Roll
Lifestyle,” “Comfort Eagle”) with more straightforward numbers
(“Love You Madly,” “Daria”), their 90-minute set aptly avoided
monotony, even when McCrea (who, in baseball cap and shabby
jacket, looked the part of either a school-bus driver or school-bus
mechanic) seemed to be phoning it in. Of course, that’s part
of his persona—even on “Never There” and “Sheep Go to Heaven,”
two of the band’s more infectious tunes, he delivers his lyrics
in a disaffected deadpan that’s somewhere between Leonard
Cohen and Jonathan Richman.
The most surprising thing about the band’s live sound was
how much it actually rocked. Gabe Nelson pushed the
groove, manhandling his Fender Precision bass as if it were
trying to escape his grasp, while guitarist Xan McCurdy displayed
ample versatility, complementing Vince DiFiore’s trumpet and
keyboard riffs with creative arpeggiating on “No Phone,” and
driving things home on the countrified road-song “Stickshifts
and Safetybelts.” Meanwhile, McCrea egged the crowd on when
they blew a prompted singalong, thanking them moments later
for having an “awesome” attention span.
The Musical Box
Theatre, Dec. 9
There are cover bands. There are tribute acts. And there is
the Musical Box. Cover bands play popular hits in their own
style. Tribute acts make a good-faith effort to look and sound
like the band they’re imitating. The Musical Box present the
works of Peter Gabriel-era Genesis with the fastidious precision
of a classical early-music ensemble—that is if, in addition
to playing historically accurate orchestrations on vintage
instruments, the ensemble donned powdered wigs and performed
When the Musical Box performed the 1974 album The Lamb
Lies Down on Broadway at the Palace last week—almost 30
years to the day after Genesis put on the same show—it was
a trip into the past. Period instruments, including a doubleneck
bass and a Mellotron, were deployed. The same slide show Genesis
used then was used again. Stage props and costumes were carefully
re-created. The staging, the lights . . . even the band’s
haircuts were the same.
All this would be simple nostalgia if the band didn’t nail
the music. The Lamb is a double-disc concept album,
the story of punk grafitti artist Rael and his surrealistic
journey from the streets of New York City to an otherworldly
realm. The story is incomprehensible, but contains some of
the most compelling music Genesis ever made. The hard-rocking
title track, the dark, sweeping “In the Cage,” the gorgeously
melodic “Carpet Crawlers” and the jaunty “Counting Out Time”
represent the best fusion of prog-rock prerogatives and pop
music smarts Genesis (or any other prog-rock group) ever managed.
Led by Gabriel sound-alike Denis Gagné and musical director-bassist
Sebastien Lamothe, the Musical Box brought this music to life
with intensity and flair.
The only problem is that the original album kinda falls apart
after the first half. Owing to the staging and energy of the
band, however, it played better live than it does on disc.
This Quebecois quartet have been around for a decade, but
this seems to have been their first visit to the area. The
Palace wasn’t quite half-full, proving that Albany isn’t the
prog-rock town places like Buffalo (where the Musical Box
sold out) or Philadelphia (where they played a three-night
stand) are. The folks that turned out, however, were diehards.
They have something worth believing in, too. Gabriel-era Genesis
is progressive rock at its musically demanding, lyrically
loony best. While other prog-rock groups could be more musically
avant-garde (King Crimson) or commercially accessible (Yes),
Genesis had a superb lineup of musician-composers (including
Phil Collins), with the half-demon, half-angel Gabriel out
Still, some of the fans seemed a little too willing to drink
the Kool-Aid. Especially the guys who cheered for the band
as if they were Genesis: “Go Peter!” “[Mike] Rutherford’s
puttin’ his guitar on again!” “That’s gotta be Tony Banks’
son!” Chill, dudes.
Since they were re-creating the original 1974 tour, they ended
the show as Genesis had, with two stone-cold classics: “The
Musical Box,” a fantasia about a child’s ghost that comes
back to haunt the sweet little girl who decapitated him with
a croquet mallet, and “Watcher of the Skies,” a SciFi anthem
for which Gagné donned a black-mesh bat-wing helmet.
I love the ’70s.
Jewish Boy With Chops
When I heard that Hasidic reggae singer Matisyahu was coming
to Savannah’s, the first thing that came to mind was SCTV’s
twisted parody of The Jazz Singer, with Sid Dithers
(Eugene Levy) trying to convince his son Yissel (Al Jarreau)
to become a soul singer (“C’mon Yissel, you gotta sing something
like the Funkadelic!”), when Yissel’s true dream is to become
a cantor in Phil Silver’s synagogue. I went to the show expecting
to giggle a lot. The very idea seemed so weird.
In reality, it was only weird for the first 10 seconds of
the show. Then the lanky and youngish Matisyahu, in trad Hasidic
garb, hat and beard, began to sing over the relentless groove
of his muscular no-nonsense band.
When he sang it was as if the heavens opened. I giggled for
sure, but out of joy and surprise rather then derision. Matisyahu
sang long notes with a clear sonorous tenor. He’d reach to
the back of his throat for a more heroic timbre, then rhythmicly
rap over fluid bouncing beats. He initially sang in Hebrew,
although I swear I detected a slight Jamaican accent. It was
hypnotic; it was pure and so, so real. Incongruous and perfectly
natural. By the end of the first song I realized my little
joke night out was going to be my show of the year.
The show moved from reggae to heavy dub to dancehall toasting
to a healthy dose of hiphop. All of these forms have become
so ubiquitous so quickly in our collective psyche, welcome
or not, that there was little that was jarring to the ear
or even slightly out of place. Matisyahu delivered everything
comfortably, without any of the forced MTV gestures that can
make white-boy rap so derivative and obnoxious. His rapping,
freestyle and otherwise, was impeccable, hyper- aggressive,
and exciting beyond words.
Several times he would matter-of-factly describe the Torah
passages that formed the basis for his songs, stressing the
simple universal messages that didn’t vary in any salient
respects from the things Bob Marley preached 30 years ago.
The ancient connections between Rastafarianism and Judaism
About three-quarters of the way through the generous show,
Matisyahu did a solo rapid-fire human beat-box routine that
was fall-down brilliant and technically inconceivable. His
three-piece backing band played at once with the fluidity
and chops of the Police and the density of, say, Hawkwind.
Yes, I said Hawkwind.
Promoter Greg Bell had somehow goosed the local Jewish community
for the show, and Savannah’s was mobbed with, let’s say, a
different kind of crowd. It was reported to me that there
were at least three orthodox rabbis in attendance celebrating
the second night of Hanukkah in this most unorthodox, but
strangely appropriate context. When Matisyahu grabbed a volunteer
from the audience for an impromptu Menorah lighting ceremony
and the loud crowd fell silent, the room, the street, the
whole world suddenly seemed to make a little more sense and
harbor a little more hope.