Epitome of ironic college rock

It’s been nearly 20 years since my first Cake show, and it seems that the hoary old adage is true: The more things change, the more rock ’n’ roll stays the same.

Riding on the strength of its latest (and best-selling album) Showroom of Compassion, Cake played two shows in Davis, so my best friend and I decided to head out over the Yolo Causeway to check out the first night.

On the way over, we reminisced about all the times we’d seen the band—way too many to count—and the ways in which our own lives have intertwined with theirs, however indirectly.

My friend used to book shows at a local nightclub, and my first time seeing the band—long before she and I became close—was in the early ’90s when they played that venue.

I’d been excited to check them out then because I’d been friends with some of the band members when we were in high school. I’d even grown up across the street from the band’s drummer and remembered how he practiced every afternoon after school.

Now, as we arrived at Freeborn Hall to find the venue two-thirds filled with an array of fans. There were women dressed in their finest mom jeans and men in Dockers and neatly pressed button-downs, there were sorority sisters in skin-tight dresses and indie rock kids in hoodies and Vans—none of them likely born the first time I snuck in, underage, to check out Cake at a bar.

Observing the scene I felt a bit overwhelmed by two decades’ worth of memories. I’d grown into adulthood with Cake and its music was a particularly integral part of the soundtrack that accompanied my 20s.

“Cake is one of those bands that people will grow old with,” my friend said. “We’ll still be listening to them years from now; their music isn’t trendy.”

It isn’t trendy now but once, at the upswing of their popularity Cake’s music seemed like the epitome of ironic college rock with songs about Italian leather sofas, goats and ambitious racecar drivers.

The show, divided into two sets, started slow as the band chugged its way through mostly new songs including Showroom of Compassion’s catchy “Sick of You” and a super funky rendition of “Mustache Man.”

The music sounded fine, but the vibe felt off—the band seemed detached and the crowd lackluster. With the Occupy Sacramento protest happening just a short freeway drive away, I wondered if John McCrea would say anything on the subject—or anything political at all for that matter.

But for the first hour he kept the socially conscious chitchat to a subtle minimum.

There was this though:

“Let’s play a song written in an automobile in Sacramento at the height of the cheap petrol era before we worried about anything,” McCrea said as the band launched into “Stickshifts and Safetybelts.”

After a brief intermission, Cake returned to launch into a set that felt more like the old days, chock-full of hits including “The Distance,” “Never There” and a contemplative, bittersweet rendition of “Jolene.”

The band’s collective personality also kicked it up a notch; the playing seemed more spirited and engaged, particularly when McCrea stopped the show to give away a tree—a customary practice for the band. When a guessing game failed to satisfactorily produce a winner, McCrea resorted to a stern questioning of two potential tree owners before, finally, forcing them into an energetic dance-off.

“Do you solemnly swear to take care of this tree?” McCrea asked.

Finally, he handed off the tiny blood orange tree, encouraging everyone in the audience to hold the winner accountable.

“I want to see pictures of this tree planted,” McCrea said. “It’s OK to make him feel bad if he doesn’t follow through.”

The crowd cheered enthusiastically at the suggestion.

Welcome home, Cake.