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In the driver’s seat: Cake’s John McCrea.

photo: Joe Putrock

Going the Distance
By John Brodeur

Northern Lights, Dec. 11

‘This 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.

Prog City Rockers

The Musical Box
Palace 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 by candlelight.

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. True believers.

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 front.

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.

—Shawn Stone

Nice Jewish Boy With Chops

Savannah’s, Dec. 8

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 became self-evident.

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.

—Paul Rapp



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