It’s been at least eight years since I had a Big Plan for New Year’s Eve. Since the birth of my Duck Feathers, New Year’s Eve has found me getting him tucked in and settling in with family. Surrounded by large batches of Barb’s caramel corn, we play games until midnight, make some noise and head to bed. I plant a kiss on my sleeping husband, who is often struck by 9:30 with a sudden bout of narcolepsy after two beers and a half-pound of cheese and crackers. This has been quite satisfactory for me. I have a funny family, and a few years have found us on midnight sled runs behind my brother’s house, running our speeding death traps into pine trees and ripping our pants. Good times, good times.
But after discovering that Cake would be playing the Riverside in Milwaukee on New Years Eve, we went for the Big Plan this year.
I love Cake. In my opinion, they are one of few refreshingly original bands left in this land. (Keep in mind, I don’t get out much.) Their style and lyrics are quirky and intelligent, perhaps near-genius. I predicted that their live show would be intense. They would blow my mind. And as someone who gets completely consumed by well-performed live music, I expected Cake would have me spinning in dance that would push my newly diagnosed benign vestibular vertigo beyond its limits.
I’ve been to plenty of shows in plenty of venues, and know the formula to live shows. You know it. You start big, get the crowd going, throw in some new material, add some down time with something slow, then build up to the finale with audience participation, a throbbing crescendo and the whole place explodes. You leave the stage as the crowd freaks out, and come back for an encore before they calm down. A couple more crowd-pleasers, and everyone leaves buying $35 T-shirts on the way out of the perspiration-steamed doors.
Apparently lead singer John McCrea doesn’t “do” formula. I knew my expectations were in trouble when the lapse of time between announcing the band to a pumped-up audience and the actual start of the first song was long enough for me to take another pee break.
The whole show seemed to be his personal social experiment in the anticipatory behaviors of large, drunk crowds and pushing their limits in patience. I couldn’t help but feel he thought of us as sheep, and we were disappointing him.
The music in itself was fun. They played lots of favorites. But just when a song would grab its hold on me, it ended. We waited, and waited, and waited for the next to begin. Talk about prolonging the magic. The pauses between every song while McCrea tuned his guitar with his back to the audience prevented us from ever gaining momentum. There were good moments, but no intense, mind-blowers. Just when the band started getting tight, McCrea created awkwardness.
A purist might argue that this intentional pull away from the formula is quintessential Cake. There were probably diehard fans nodding knowingly with smirks on their faces when McCrea preached about sacrifice (“Do you know anyone who was injured?”) and the privilege of running water rather than belting out “I Will Survive” (which they never did, dammit). I’m sure there were a few smug, internal cheers among the black-rimmed- square-glasses-wearing crowd when, at one minute ‘til midnight, McCrea began to discuss marking the “arbitrary difference between now and then” and rambled something about “killing your family while you watch” rather than count backwards from ten, which the audience finally took it upon themselves to do.
Observing McCrea’s discontentment in our buffooness was reminiscent of that apologetic feeling you get browsing at an independently-owned record store where the pretentious and knowledgeable staff exchange heated debates about the most obscure underground bands. You SO want to buy something completely unknown and edgy just to show them you are cool, but end up hanging your head low, feeling the unspoken scoff when they ring up your David Cook CD.
I am not a musical purist. I am a 40-year old woman who had Big Plans and likes to dance. I like counting backwards at midnight on New Years Eve followed by a good hoot n’ holler. I would have really appreciated an extended Vince DiFiore solo to take me out of my head for a few minutes. I couldn’t ascertain if this was Cake’s regular schtick, if it was all tongue-in-cheek, or if McCrea was truly disillusioned with our inadequacies and inability to maintain more than a moment’s silence for the wounded (“you obviously don’t appreciate the sacrifices made for your country or you would have been silent immediately after I asked you to…”) or sing in unison for more than seven minutes. (“Bah”, he waved us off with the flick of his hand after what I thought was a damn good effort).
I am not bitter. I had a great New Year’s Eve. The Riverside Theater is a great venue. We were with good friends. The atmosphere was festive. Everyone was smiling. Klements Sausage Racers were a hit, as were the Brewhaus Polka Kings. There were plenty of sequins, glitter, and animal prints brightening up the joint. The bathroom line conversations were classic. You can bring your beverages right into the theater. I got a long, heated kiss at midnight from my awake and pleasantly buzzed husband. And except for the drunk asshole who kept yelling “MR. MASTADON FARM!!” every thirty seconds, it was like hanging out in an extra large living room with hundreds of your best-dressed and happiest friends. And when all is said and done, it was Cake and I heard some good tunes. They did really crank on “Jolene”. I went the distance, was bound for Mexico, and if I AM a sheep, I’m going to heaven.
I still love Cake. I plan on purchasing those CDs I don’t yet own because I respect their music and want more. I’m all for consciousness-raising through music. You can dis’ me AND my country while I’m listening to you in my car.
But the next time I’m dressed in sparkles (or a short skirt and a loooong jacket) bringing in a new year, I think I’ll select the overwhelming thrill of formula over anti-climactic arrogance.
Happy New Year to the sheep AND the goats.