CAKE at the 9:30 Club, reviewed

OUT: More Cowbell.

IN: Enough with the Goddamn Vibra-Slap Already.

“We’re opening for ourselves!” CAKE frontman John McCrea announced last night at the first of three consecutive sold-out evenings at the 9:30 Club. He was explaining their appearance at earlyish hour of 8:15. It’s “an evening with CAKE,” he said, stretching out the word “evening” in his mouth. Sounds like the eclectic Sacramento group — riding high on the strength of Showroom of Compassion, their first new music in seven years — had prepared a lengthy program and we’d all best get comfy, right?

Nope! They played exactly 90 minutes, the minimum acceptable amount for a band with a 17-year catalog. Which would’ve been okay if they didn’t do everything possible to drain the gig 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 aged legend who physically requires a midshow rest. These guys? All in their mid-40s.

Post-intermission, they burned another 10 interminable minutes giving away a tree to an audience member. And eliciting a promise from the unlucky 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. I have a compost pile in my apartment, and this was, even to me, insufferable.

Then they exerted themselves for all of seven more songs — good ones, like “Stickshifts and Safetybelts”! — before taking an encore break.

Look McCrea, it’s your party and you can hide under an olive cap that makes you look like Fidel Castro if you want to, but no frontman should ever be to complete an entire show in a club in a sweater. The too-casual vibe was worsened by the fact that on the irregular occasions when McCrea & Co. decided to, I don’t know, play a song? They killed. Their musicianship is unimpeachable! Well, discounting McCrea’s baffling penchant for working that vibra-slap at frequent, random, amusical intervals, anyway. “Sad Songs and Waltzes,” the lovely Willie Nelson tune they opened with, had a dusty melancholy, and the pair of new jams that closed the first set, “Mustache Man (Wasted)” and “Federal Funding,” deigned to rock. McCrea had to unzip his sweater, they rocked so hard.

The second set — all seven songs of it — was even better. The recent single “Sick of You” may sound like a 70s FM warhorse with lyrics Lenny Kravitz would be ashamed to sing if he hadn’t sang them already, but as a platform for a two-part audience singalong — one McCrea risked a wicked case of tennis elbow to conduct — it was the best part of the show.

A version of this review appears on The Washington Post’s Click Track blog.

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