HOLLYWOOD A few hours before Cake hit the stage at a sold-out Hollywood Palladium, frontman John McCrea mused backstage about one lyric that will carry extra irony this night.
"I don't wanna go to Sunset Strip, I don't wanna feel the emptiness."
The crowd laughed and hooted later that night as McCrea delivered this line from "Sheep Go to Heaven" with exaggerated angst. It's a lyrical reflection of McCrea's time living in Los Angeles during the 1980s, before he founded Cake in Sacramento and became one of the city's biggest musical success stories.
All these years later, after headlining shows around the world and seeing Cake's latest album debut at No. 1, Sacramento still feels like Cake's home sweet home.
"I was biased toward Northern California aesthetics," said McCrea, thinking back to his time living in L.A. "There was a lot of that 'big dumb rock' thing at the time, the veins-bulging-from-neck kind of music. That's not what I do. Cake is stridently and sort of angrily small-sounding. I thought I could just go back to Sacramento and make a record."
You can see that smaller-is-better ethos in McCrea's onstage guitar gear: A humble nylon-string guitar powered by an almost comically tiny amplifier. Meanwhile, Vince DiFiore's trumpet recalls marching band and mariachi licks, and Xan McCurdy's guitar chugs with rockabilly and R&B riffs no ear-screeching power chords here.
By contrast, back in Cake's hometown, there's a movement to make Sacramento feel big. There's Think Big, the arena effort led by Mayor Kevin Johnson, and the committee booking downtown's Friday Night Concerts in the Park series known as "Play Big Sacramento."
Midtown Sacramento also feels flashier and less bohemian than the neighborhood McCrea remembers during Cake's days in the early 1990s. Greta's Cafe, a beloved spot at 19th and Capitol that provided McCrea with employment and caffeine to fuel his songwriting, is now a Chipotle. The new wave of valet parking stands and ultra lounges in midtown would be the perfect lyrical fodder for snarky Cake songs.
"It's much 'smoother' now," said McCrea about current-day midtown. "I think it's great that people are starting to take pride in the old buildings, and people are having a sense of pride about the town, generally. That said, I'm not into the VIP parking thing. I'd hate for Sacramento to become a big town, a sort of cold and uncaring suburban sprawl."
Another song rotated in Cake's recent set list comes with some hometown irony. The band still plays the instrumental "Arco Arena" from its 2001 "Comfort Eagle" album, a track later sampled on the Jay-Z track "Guns & Roses" with guest vocals by Lenny Kravitz.
Wouldn't it be timely to update the title to the arena's new name, Power Balance Pavilion?
"I think it's perfect that the name changed," McCrea said. "I named the song that because of the sort of fleeting nature of selling our culture to businesses, selling our cultural narrative to advertisers. When everything's up for sale, of course it's going to change."
But for all his quips about modern living, McCrea seems more relaxed and chatty than ever. He divides his time between an Oakland home, where he's rearing a young daughter and four backyard chickens with "1980s girls' names" ("There's Cindy, Ashley, Brittney and I always forget the fourth one"), and a Sacramento apartment when it's time to record and rehearse in Cake's solar-powered studio.
In performance, McCrea sprints to the sides of the stages, leading the crowd into spirited singalongs as Cake grooves in the background. While some early Cake performances were so droll that it was like paying a cover charge to watch someone smoke cigarettes, Cake has emerged as a truly fun and crowd-pleasing band, treating the audience to tracks from its latest album ("Showroom of Compassion") and such alternative-rock hits as "The Distance" and "Never There."
This Hollywood crowd, a mix of ages ranging from pre-teens to their parents, treats Cake like full-blown rock stars. Before the show, star-struck choruses of "ooooh!" emerge from those waiting in line as McCrea and DiFiore arrive at the Hollywood Palladium for soud check. On this night, it's an evening with Cake, with no opening acts and two solid sets from the band.
Sacramento crowds at Cake concerts act mellow by comparison. Perhaps it's because they're just hometown guys here, and it wouldn't be uncommon to run into one of the members at a cafe or pub. But two nights after Cake's appearance on "Conan," this crowd cheers and sings along with Cake like it's alternative-rock royalty.
Cake is winding down the touring behind "Showroom of Compassion," which debuted in January 2011 at No. 1 on the album charts. McCrea's already working on songs for Cake's next album, which means it'll be time to head to Sacramento again and play some surprise shows and test out the new tunes.
"I love Sacramento," said McCrea, before joining the band at sound check. "Stay on our mailing list (at www.cakemusic.com) because that lets people find out about these tiny shows in Sacramento."