Music rags: Rifflandia performance that takes the Cake

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It’s in with the old and in with the new.

In the last couple of months on his ever-brilliant WTF podcast, Marc Maron has talked to the front men of two seminal ’90s bands: Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, and Mike Doughty of Soul Coughing. In both episodes, the topic of playing old, tried-and-true hits came up, and both guests gave very different answers.

Coyne said he was more than happy to play his hits (including the Lips’ biggest hit and Rifflandia set-closer, “Do You Realize?”) because that’s what the fans know and what many of them want to see. These were the songs that first brought those fans into the fold, and such tunes keep the set moving along. Doughty, on the other hand, was much more ready to dismiss the hits that made him a recognizable name in alt-rock. Those Soul Coughing songs are retired, buried in the depths of fans’ memories, only to be heard through a stereo or iPod.

On Rifflandia’s main stage on the night of Sept. 15, Cake, another seminal ’90s band, performed a set that trod the middle ground between the two viewpoints regarding old hits, bringing a perfect blend of new music and tried-and-true classics.

Cake came out to the stringy, thumping chords of “Sheep Go to Heaven,” a treatise on mundane working life. A classic and sure-fire set starter from 1998’s Prolonging the Magic, “Sheep” did what great songs do, getting the crowd singing along to the unforgettable refrain, “Sheep go to heaven; goats go to hell.”

Keeping their humorous, skewed take on modern life and love, Cake’s new set of songs (from 2011’s independently released Showroom of Compassion) fit perfectly alongside its better-known ancestors. A song like “Mustache Man (Wasted)” takes on a theme familiar to Cake — societal fraud and posturing — and reimagines it as if the last 18 years of music never happened. I mean that in the best possible way. Cake exists as they always have.

The band is brimming with intelligence and self-deprecating wit, as well as fantastical poetic turns: “He’s a king dust demon with an icepick smile/His music fills your feathers as you feel your passions fly” (from “Mustache Man”). The signature sound is built around the deadpan delivery of charismatic lead singer John McCrea.

And while those new songs showed how consistent Cake is, it was (however expectedly) the old songs that brought the largest cheers out of the capacity crowd at Royal Athletic Park.

The band’s first single, “Rock ’n’ Roll Lifestyle” (from 1994’s Motorcade of Generosity), rings just as true today as it did upon its release. Hilarious and thoughtful, the song pokes fun at hipster ethos, ending with a tongue-in-cheek warning about the eventual problems of carefully designed lifestyle. McCrea cautions tattooed, inebriated partiers, singing, “Aging black leather and hospital bills / Tattoo removal and dozens of pills / Your liver pays dearly now for youthful magic moments / But rock on completely with some brand new components.” It was the first Cake song I ever heard, albeit three years after its release, and on Saturday it reminded me why I love this band.

Near the end of the set, my most memorable moment of the festival occurred. As McCrea divided the crowd into people who are angry at life and people who are escapists and love distractions like marijuana, a small child behind me turned to his mom and dad and asked, “What is marijuana?” The parents looked at each other and laughed awkwardly. The father turned to me and said, “I guess he hasn’t seen his old man in the backyard.”

As Cake emerged for the encore to a pretty awesome set, the band surprised everyone with a loving rendition of the Black Sabbath track “War Pigs.” My partner turned to me and asked, “How can they possibly top this?” I could only answer, “Obviously, they’re going to play ‘The Distance.’ ” I was correct, and there was something so comforting in knowing what was going to come.

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