Ben Folds (photo: Joshua Huver)
The second act of the wildly successful 2018 tour featuring ’90s indie legends Ben Folds and CAKE stopped at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View last Friday, September 13. Last summer’s tour of the Midwest and East Coast saw the co-headlining duo turn out one of the highest grossing acts of the summer according to Pollstar.
The show opened with the Boston-based electrofolk multi-instrumentalist duo Tall Heights. Guitarist Paul Wright and cellist Tim Harrington. Unfortunately, while I did not make it to the show in time to catch their act, a mention was warranted because it won’t be the last you’ve heard of them. Their second record, 2018’s Pretty Colors For Your Actions is worth adding to your queue. In fact, they managed to find their way into Ben Folds’ band as well as the opening set.
In addition to Wright and Harrington, Folds’ band on this run includes drummer Paul Dumas and Ross Garren. Dumas’ kit was wonderfully stripped down and simplified, acting more as a percussion station that your typical kit, accented by his animated and often standing approach to the rhythm. Garren offered a different variety of low-end to the mix via a world of bassy wind instruments, primarily the bass harmonica.
The collection of musicians and the variety of instruments among them blew me away. Ben Folds’ ability to masterfully blend and harness the range of sounds into coherent, catchy as hell pop songs is a true testament to the genius at hand. He opened the show with the first of several tunes from his wildly popular 2001 solo debut Rockin’ The Suburbs, “Annie Waits,” followed by the Ben Folds Five classic “The Battle of Who Could Care Less” followed by “Moscow Mitch.” “Moscow Mitch” is a brand-new song that Folds debuted earlier in August, focusing on the nickname for Republican Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell. It makes me wonder exactly just how riveting the political conversations backstage with CAKE must be.
“Levi Johnston’s Blues” followed as the lone foul-mouthed and nightmare-ish cut from Folds’ 2010 Lonely Avenue project with Nick Hornby. The ensemble then moved onto the title track from his 2015 collaboration with yMusic Ensemble, So There. The song about a broke-ass and bitter ex came ahead of an uplifting anthem in the form of “Do It Anyway,” the second of three BF5 originals to make the 14 song set list.
Garren’s abilities on the bass harmonica really shone bright during “Do It Anyway,” with the sound ranging from deep rumbling bass to a squeaky high kazoo and a mid range harmonica. It wasn’t until this track that I was fully aware of how unique his position was in this group, and he blew me away. For most of the show and through this point, Folds wasn’t utilizing the seat at his piano. Instead, he opted to take an all-out rock and roll stance, bracing his entire body for full musical and metaphysical impact.
But by 8:30, he pulled the seat back into place, sat down and began the soft ballad intro to “Still Fighting It” from the Rockin’ The Suburbs. For the next track, 2008’s “You Don’t know Me” Folds encouraged the audience members in the know to sing along and cover Regina Spektor’s part. Two more Rockin’ tunes, “The Ascent of Stan” and the cringy car wreck that is “Zak and Sara.”
“Here’s a song in the key of F, for anyone who’s counting,” Folds said to introduce the “Zak and Sara.” The only track from 2005’s Songs For Silverman that made the set list followed, the fan favorite and ballad sing-along “Landed.” The sing-along continued without missing a beat as the crowd’s excitement swelled and dropped with the opening melody for “The Luckiest.” Arguably the go-to song on thousands of mix CDs from the early aughts, it would have been a strong ending. But the band didn’t stop there. The 13th and 14th songs of Ben Folds’ set were also his last. From the 1995 self-titled Ben Folds Five debut album they performed “Underground” before closing the set with “Rockin’ The Suburbs.”
CAKE took the stage shortly after 9:40, following an over-drawn synth intro. The set began with “Sheep Go To Heaven,” the first of two selections from 1998’s Prolonging The Magic. For the second, third and almost half of the overall 11-song set, they drew from their 1996 debut Fashion Nugget. “Frank Sinatra” led into the Osvaldo Farrés cover, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps.”
Shortly after 10pm, CAKE performed their first of two songs from 2011’s Showroom of Compassion, “Long Time”. Next, they moved onto their newest single, “Sinking Ship.” By Quarter after 10, the band was over half way through their set with the Willie Nelson cover “Sad Songs and Waltzes.” One of the most impressive parts of this track was the lighting designer’s use of the disco ball. It appeared to be activated every time trumpeter Vince DiFiore made a sound, wholly enhancing his contributions.
During this track, McCrea led the audience on a sing along, and had a unique message for any unwilling participants. As though it were part of the narrative lyrics, he said “and everyone started singing, whether they wanted to our not because sometimes it’s about doing something with your community!”
He continued addressing the resistance: “I know that you’re a maverick but you can sing with everyone else. Powerful background vocals of the Bay Area let’s hear it for you!” Following the track, he offered this criticism: “That was a stellar tune, pretty good tempo. Those of you who bothered to sing – some people were letting other people do the work for them, surfing on other people’s energy, safely nestled in their seats grinning nervously. You probably have stocks that are gaining or appreciating. They think they’re better than us, don’t they?!”
Ahead of the next track,”Stick Shifts and Safety Belts.” Lead vocalist John McCrea addressed the song, admitting it was written when petroleum and oil consumption didn’t involve the consciousness that it does today. “This next song was written while driving an automobile during the height of the cheap oil era. Nobody knew it was the height of any era…we were just using cars, plowing through the wonderful stores of energy the universe was giving us. Your self esteem is really tied into that petroleum isn’t it? You can’t be you without it!”
Before launching into the next track, CAKE spent nine minutes engaging the audience in greening the planet through their tree-planting program. Every show, CAKE gives away a fruit tree to the person that can correctly guess the type of tree that is being given away on the given night. On their website, you can see a map and updates of all the trees they have given away.
The final two tracks of the set were full of crowd energy. During “Sick of You,” McCrea split the crowd in two for the chorus, assisting in identifying the underlying nuances of each character line.
One side was given a complete bro-dude, basic psyche and instructed to sing the line “I wanna fly away.” The side of the audience I was on was instructed to be angry. “You are losing your shit on the highway in your Tesla when someone is not obeying the same laws you are. Your head explodes with anger on the internet and it’s all somebody else’s fault.”
McCrea, despite his cynicism and sarcasm, offered some true well-wishes for the audience at the close of the set: “I hope you experience something you can remember.” The set ended at 10:45 with the fan favorite “Never There,” the second track from Prolonging the Magic.
They returned to the stage seven minutes later for an encore. CAKE obliged their two most popular radio singles beginning with “Short Skirt / Long Jacket” and ending the show with”The Distance”. During “Short Skirt” I had a mini revelation that I still need to investigate, but it had to do with CAKE being one of the first indie rock bands to tap into the ‘Ho! Hey!” Call and response that allowed bands like The Lumineers to succeed.
CAKE closed the show with uncertainty if they would continue touring, but with a new record expected in the late fall, we expect it may just come to pass.