Offbeat band finds entertaining in L.A. a piece of ‘Cake’

In Music

Quality, not quantity ruled as funky white boys Cake played for an exuberant but tiny crowd Nov. 18 at the Universal Amphitheater.

The kitschy, monotone but somehow infectious band known for its 1996 hit "Going the Distance" treated the setting like the ultimate arena tour with massive sing-alongs, cover tunes and looming political tapestries.

Unlike radio-friendly one trick ponies that play only the hits live, Cake shied away from its popular songs and dappled mostly in new material off Pressure Chief. The fans reacted favorably, mouthing the lyrics to every song.

Opening band The Walkmen did not fair as well. (An additional group, the Roots-y hip-hop outfit Heiruspecs, performed prior but this reporter unfortunately missed its set.) The quirky audience just didn’t jive with the stringent indie rock of The Walkmen.

Singer Hamilton Leithauser threw vocal tantrums, alternating between a mellow Bob Dylan drawl and a whiny Bono impression, proclaiming, "I don’t care much for the go-go or the retro" in the whimsical "We’ve Been Had."

Though somewhat unpalatable to the crowd, The Walkmen did not lack in enthusiasm. Drummer Matt Barrick committed the cardinal sin of indie rock by actually smiling during the set, banging the skins like an elated Donkey Kong. And incorporating a tiny tinkling piano into various songs, plunked by the hulking Paul Maroon, was a stroke of visual genius.

Not to be outdone by The Walkmen’s stage theatrics, Cake unveiled a tongue-in-cheek banner before taking the stage: "A safer world, a more hopeful America," it insisted. The ironic Bush-like slogan was panned by front man John McCrea throughout the show. He introduced their cover of Gloria Gaynor’s "I Will Survive" by saying, "This song is about human survival—not possible, but let’s hope."

The deadpan delight permeated the 15-song set, spanning 10 years of hating celebrity decadence ("Rock ‘N’ Roll Lifestyle,") indulging in Mariachi madness ("Comanche") and pondering where certain mammals go upon death ("Sheep Go To Heaven").

Trumpeter Vince DiFiore enthralled the crowd whenever he soloed and McCrea added to the fun with his sproingy ball instrument that rattled like something out of an old Western flick.

Feeding off the warm reception from the audience, the bearded, baseball-cap-wearing McCrea said, "We can’t believe there’s so many people that remember this band exists," awarding their devotion with the head-bopping hit "Never There" off 1998’s Prolonging the Magic.

Cake prolonged the magic a little longer with a thunderous encore. Glowing cell phones pierced the darkness of the Amphitheater until their alternative anti-heroes returned to the stage.

"Cell phones are the new cigarette lighters," McCrea said with disdain. Fittingly, the band played "No Phone," during which the singer encouraged the men to sing like "angry vikings coming home from sea." Miraculously, the fans actually sounded good, unlike too many concert sing-alongs that dissipate into drunken slurring or the squeals of overzealous sopranos.

Amazing live shows cannot be judged by the size of the crowd alone. Cake’s stint in Universal City proved that a paltry-sized audience can roar like any good arena show, as long as the fans and the band are energetic.

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