"We're opening for ourselves!" CAKE frontman John McCrea announced Thursday night at the first of three consecutive sold-out evenings at the 9:30 Club. He was explaining their appearance at the earlyish hour of 8:15. It's "an evening with CAKE," he said, stretching out the word "evening." It sounded like the distinct but tough-to-classify Sacramento group - riding high on the strength of "Showroom of Compassion," the band's first new music in seven years - had prepared a lengthy program and we'd all best get comfy, right?
Nope. CAKE played exactly 90 minutes, the minimum acceptable amount for a band with a 17-year catalog. And that would've been okay if CAKE didn't do everything possible to pull the plug whenever any momentum or excitement threatened to accrue.
A 20-minute intermission after only 45 of music? Allowable if you're going to play at least double that upon your return, or if you're an aging legend who physically requires a midshow rest. These guys are in their mid-40s.
Post-intermission, they burned 10 interminable minutes giving away a tree to an audience member. And eliciting a promise from the winner to re-plant said tree. And to use it to teach his students - he's a teacher - “where food comes from.” And to post photos of himself with the tree on the band's website.
Then they exerted themselves for all of seven more songs - good ones, like "Stickshifts and Safetybelts" - before taking another brief break in advance of their three-song encore.
What made the too-casual vibe hurt was that when McCrea & Co. decided to actually play a song, they killed. "Sad Songs and Waltzes," the lovely Willie Nelson tune they opened with, had a dusty melancholy vibe, and the pair of new jams that closed the first set, "Mustache Man (Wasted)" and "Federal Funding," deigned to rock.
The second set - all 30 minutes of it - was even better. The recent single "Sick of You" may sound like a 70s FM staple, but as a platform for a two-part audience singalong conducted by McCrea, it was the best part of the show.