Rays of Dope
"It's a good thing we didn't say 'first annual' on the first tour," Cake trumpeter Vince DiFiore says from his home in Sacramento, where he's been testing out a weird old organ that bassist Gabe Nelson has just dropped off. ("It's one of these ones where you switch between trumpet, oboe, organ, Moog, and it sounds nothing like those instruments. It has an interesting timbre, though.") DiFiore is referring to Unlimited Sunshine, the traveling music extravaganza the veteran quintet has curated, hosted and headlined three times since 2002. With each edition, you get a big helping of Cake's laconic pep and front man John McCrae's deadpan delivery, plus a nicely varied buffet of sounds.
They don't roll out Unlimited Sunshine every year. But when they do, Cake's members assure quality.
Actually, DiFiore is a bit philosophical about how they assemble the tour. "We want bands with their own sound, but very listenable bands," he says. "Stuff that's within the bounds of human fairness as far as the performer-listener agreement goes." And to that end, they've rounded up five acts for their 2007 motorcade of generosity: the Detroit Cobras' steely Motor City R&B; Brooklyn chamber-pop sextet Oakley Hall; King City, a Latin surf band from San Francisco; and the indie-rock chanteusery of Sacramento duo Agent Ribbons. (Brazilian Girls will replace the Cobras for Sunshine's East Coast dates.)
As for Cake, they're just now finishing up the touring for 2004's Pressure Chief, their latest recording of quirky pop music. They're also celebrating the October release of a new disc—self-explanatorily titled B-Sides and Rarities—that includes Cake's take on a few covers à la their dark horse 1996 hit version of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive." Ever wondered what McCrae's sly wit would sound like applied to, say, "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath? Or the velvety Barry White classic "Never, Never, Gonna Give You Up"? Not to ruin it for you, but when they're run through the Cake mixing bowl, both songs are brittle and swinging.
Cake has a formula, for sure. But it's one with longevity and zing. Look at Chuck, the NBC comedy about a laid-back, witty nerd's misadventures as a superspy: the band's alternative-radio favorite "Short Skirt, Long Jacket" ("She's changing her name from Kitty to Karen/She's trading her MG for a white Chrysler LeBaron") is the show's theme song.
They have a few tricks up their sleeves for the tour, too. King City will perform in between sets as the Unlimited Sunshine house band—"They'll sort of be the MCs, or the chorus," DiFore says—while you can expect typically impeccable taste in archival rock & roll and Motown soul from the Cobras, led as always by the smoky, powerhouse vocals of Rachel Nagy. The Cobras can be absolutely vicious live. They don't just breathe new life into their repertoire of dusties; they give them a new, hardened soul.
The rest of the lineup shouldn't slouch. Over their five albums, Oakley Hall's sound has wound through rangy psychedelic folk, old-timey melodies and boot-stomping, Southern-tinged pop (the band has a fine new release on Merge, I'll Follow You), while DiFiore has nothing but nice things to say about Agent Ribbons vocalist/guitarist Lauren Hess. "She's in her early 20s," he says, "but she sounds like she's been singing for 30 years. There's a Nancy Sinatra professionalism about her voice."
Cake has never wanted Unlimited Sunshine to resemble a prefab rock festival with all bluster and no continuity. Little touches like roping in the surf, Latin and 1930s swing-band sounds of King City to offset the more traditional lineups are nice, but DiFiore thinks everyone from the bands to the fans benefit from their hands-on, hand-picked approach to the tour.
"It's not like a radio-station festival, where bands will come in for one day, do their thing and leave," he says. The organ makes a honking noise in the background. "I'm not going to say there's a real community-party vibe going on, but we're traveling together, and as you catch a set here and there, you really start to appreciate the bands you're touring with. It's great fun for anyone involved in the show."
Cake perform with the Detroit Cobras, Oakley Hall, King City and Agent Ribbons at the Grove of Anaheim, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700; www.thegroveofanaheim.com. Sun., 7:30 p.m. $37.50.
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