Redmond, WA — CAKE, Ben Folds, and special guests Tall Heights seemed to be right where they belong as they performed amidst the tranquil atmosphere of Marymoor Park. The Seattle Eastside amphitheatre is surrounded by trees, and the crowd was content to sit and chill on the lawn from the get-go. This is the second time CAKE and Ben Folds have commenced on a summer co-headlining tour accompanied by Tall Heights. Summer of 2018 saw the joint tour spanning the east side of the country, and this year it was along the west coast. This 2019 tour wraps in Grand Prairie, TX, which makes it slightly surprising that they’re not stopping in Phoenix between Los Angeles and Austin. Following the final date, CAKE is headed to France, and Folds to Milwaukee, WI.
This isn’t the first time electro-folk duo Tall Heights has toured alongside Ben Folds — Burning Hot Events reviewed their concert at Marquee Theatre in September of 2017. “Spirit Cold” is one of their most recognizable songs, and it was that very song that I could hear in the distance as I approached the amphitheatre after getting stuck in the concert traffic, reminding me of CAKE’s “Long Line of Cars.”
Their soothing folk vibe and harmonies could not have been more perfect for an outdoor show closing out the work week. With their discography currently comprised of three albums, their most recent release was Pretty Colors for Your Actions on October 5, 2018. It is moving to know that they have come this far from their beginnings of busking in Boston.
When Ben Folds hit the stage, Tall Heights continued to perform in his live band alongside him. Folds casually yet energetically strolled onto stage with a demeanor that read like we are all old friends. He began his set with upbeat “Annie Waits” — an uplifting contrast to the gentleness of Tall Heights’ music. Despite this, Tall Heights paired with Folds seamlessly, and it was apparent how much fun they have up there with him. The accompaniment is demonstrative that despite going solo, Folds loves to perform as a group.
It was probably about 7:00pm when Folds started. He told the crowd that he thought he was going on at 8:00pm, so he was performing in the clothes he slept in. He said that he had let himself go, and asked the audience who else had let themselves go. Oddly enough, a majority of the crowd honestly raised their hands and there was laughter all around. He even improvised a “Let Yourself Go” song later on in his set. With the use of his quirky sense of humor, Folds has a gift for generating a feeling of camaraderie at his concerts.
During the following song, “You Don’t Know Me,” Folds encouraged the audience to fill in for Regina Spektor. It would have been amazing to hear Spektor singing the parts herself, but it was quite enjoyable to participate in the sing-a-long.
The sun went down as his set progressed, and strings of lights surrounding the stage lit up. It was a beautiful environment. Even this, however, was not without some typical aggro displays amongst the crowd in which some of the concertgoers that obviously don’t attend shows often yelled at others that wanted to stand during the concert because it was preventing from seeing while they sat on the ground. It’s expected to see this type of aggression in the Arizona heat, but less so in the more passive and down-to-earth Seattle area. It just goes to show there’s one in every crowd.
But there were also bemusing moments where some women danced along to Ben Folds in a completely mismatched style — as if they were dancing in a nightclub. It was heartwarming to see a female security guard subtly bobbing along to the music, and a male fan passionately singing along. Folds also made a touching statement about having to pinch himself for being able to tour with CAKE.
In April 2018, Rolling Stone recorded high praise from each of the co-headliners directed at the other. CAKE’s frontman John McCrea was quoted, including the sentiment, “In a culture often conflicted about its relationship to melody, and songwriting generally, Ben continues unapologetically to provide melodic clarity and musicality.” Folds stated, “Cake – my rough contemporaries, comrades and heroes – to me, they make universal, poetic, identifiable music with a groove.” Both artists were sure to make mention of Tall Heights, and the last sentence in McCrea’s quote summed things up rather well, when he said, “This co-headline line up seems like a good combination of musical styles-disparate but not antithetical to each other-and it should be a solid evening of music.” The fact that they decided to tour together again the next year shows that their feelings remained unchanged after they joined up the first time.
Two songs from Ben Folds Five were included in the setlist: “Battle of Who Could Care Less” and “Do It Anyway,” both of which were everything they should be with the backup vocals lent by Tall Heights. It would have been nice to have a video camera on Folds’ hands when he was playing, with the footage displayed on a screen, especially on a song with the impressively high-speed tempo of “Do It Anyway.” One of the best parts about his stage presence, though, is that his dynamic movements at the piano help compensate for the lack of visibility of his bandaged fingers.
The contribution of the cello and harmonica to the new song “Moscow Mitch,” unambiguously inspired Mitch McConnell’s new nickname, added great layers to an otherwise simple song.
A personal favorite moment was during “Rockin’ the Suburbs” when Folds emulated the vocals of Zack de la Rocha of Rage Against the Machine, and he did it surprisingly well — even better than on the album. Despite his debut solo album Rockin’ the Suburbs being released in 2001, the song’s topic of “white boy pain” is apropos in current times. There seemed to be a consensus amongst the crowd as they laughed knowingly during his dialogue leading up to the song about unnecessarily angry suburban white guys. Good Charlotte’s “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” (released in 2002) has a very similar theme, and even a similar chord progression.
Although he has released multiple LPs, the album the most songs were taken from was Rockin’ the Suburbs. Folds closed out his 15-song set with “Not the Same”. He stood on his piano gesturing grandly toward the crowd like a conductor, bringing his set to an engaging and dramatic finale.
CAKE had an epic lead up to their entrance with the entirety of the song “War” by Vince DiCola from the Rocky IV soundtrack. The venue was buzzing with excitement for a one-of-a-kind band that many had been waiting seemingly an eternity to see live. Thankfully they were able to perform, despite the fact that 5 of their instruments were recently stolen by some heartless heathens in Portland.
“Originally formed as a somewhat antagonistic answer to grunge, CAKE’s democratic processes, defiant self-reliance, and lucid yet ever-inventive music has made them a nation-state unto themselves, with no obvious peers, belonging to no school.”
The band opened with “Sheep Go to Heaven” from their third album, Prolonging the Magic. A disco ball added eye candy behind them, on and off throughout the night. The signature sound of the trumpet and the vibraslap bring about a certain sort of familiar comfort that’s rooted in the simpler times of the 90s.
CAKE has released 6 studio albums, with the most recent one, Showroom of Compassion, having been released in 2011. The singles “Sinking Ship” and “Age of Aquarius” were released within the past year. While McCrea has discussed an eventual album release, no date or title have been provided as of yet.
CAKE and their pithy music still remains very much of its time even in 2019. Their politically-charged social media presence has divided fans, driven some away, and drawn others closer. McCrea donned a white t-shirt with the Kool-aid Man busting through a brick wall with barbed wire at the top, and it read, “FUCK YOUR BULLSHIT WALL!” Amusingly, after having the crowd at the concert battle in a loudness war, he made the punchy comment, “There’s good people on both sides,” which was responded to by many with, “BOOOO!”
It was nice to experience something fresh from CAKE as they performed “Sinking Ship,” their first new original song in 7 years, which laments a self-inflicted apocalypse. Interestingly, Showroom of Compassion was recorded in a solar-powered studio. In between songs, their environmental consciousness was displayed after McCrea said he could not concentrate until they gave away the tree sitting next to him onstage. CAKE has a tree map on their website under a “Forest” tab. The website offers no explanation regarding the map, but a great many know what it’s about since they’ve been giving away trees at their concerts for over a decade.
During the tree contest, fans shouted to McCrea, and he responded to one man saying, “That’s not your tree yet. That’s called white male entitlement.” The crowd roared with laughter, and he followed with, “No he’s just having a good time.”
It turned out to be a honeycrisp apple tree, which was won by a woman named Josie, who guessed the type of tree correctly. McCrea continued to elicit laughter as he called to her, “Get up here and get your damn tree… Don’t jump up and down and hug your friend. Come and get your tree.”
The duality of the monotonous vocals with sarcastic lyrics versus Vince DiFiore’s vibrant trumpet and upbeat music is an interesting experience, and CAKE gives a show that feels enthusiastic overall despite McCrea’s somewhat deadpan nature. He breaks out of that mold as he raises his guitar in the air, gestures and raises his arms toward the crowd, and it seems that he greatly enjoys playing the vibraslap and pointing it at individuals in the crowd.
With a somewhat laid-back stage presence, CAKE’s performance seemed effortless during their 12-song set and they sounded perfect. Their last 5 songs were arguably some of their most popular: “Love You Madly,” “Never There,” “I Will Survive,” “Short Skirt/Long Jacket,” and “The Distance.” I would have loved to experience one of my personal favorites: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle,” which was actually their very first single, released in 1995.
At one point, McCrea mentioned that he once spoke with a physicist that said, “hope is something you have to do,” it doesn’t just happen to you. This message resonated strongly as a reminder that we must make cognitive effort and take action if we want to improve our lives. There is always a different kind of impact from a show that is more than only rock ‘n’ roll. This wasn’t a concert for those that are totally intolerant of leftist leanings, and it was otherwise a show that was impressive, communal, light-hearted, nostalgic, and cathartic. CAKE, Ben Folds, and Tall Heights at Marymoor Park was an experience that brought excellent entertainment value and generated lingering positive energy. We’re looking forward to the announcement of CAKE’s album release date, and a first listen to their newest compelling lyrics.
Photography: Katherine Amy Vega
CAKE & Ben Folds Ft Tall Heights – Marymoor Park 9-6-19
Photography © Kataklizmic Design
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