In a music festival called City of Trees, of course there must be Cake. The alternative-rock band is among the most successful musical acts to break from this so-called City of Trees, honing its act at Sacramento clubs before a career that’s ascended to the top of the album charts. (Bonus “you know you’re from Sacramento” points if you ever saw Cake at Drago’s Cafe, now the site of midtown’s Golden Bear).
That Cake connection to trees goes even further. The group’s known for giving away an actual tree at its concerts, with the winner promising to care for the small tree and post a picture to the “Cake Forest” on the band’s website.
The chance to win a tree during Cake’s set will cap a full day of the festival Saturday at Gibson Ranch. It’s the debut of City of Trees, an alternative-rock festival presented by Radio 94.7 which also features Of Monsters And Men, James Bay and more.
Cake founder John McCrea has usually thrown shade at the notion of playing large-scale festivals, preferring a more intimate concert experience than performing to a crowd that’s spent all day subjected to the elements. But he’s cool with City of Trees and feels that festivals on the whole are becoming better managed.
“I really used to hate the festival experience,” said McCrea, in a phone call from his Bay Area home. “I think people get really tired and thirsty and dusty at festivals. Now, the way I feel is a little different. It’s a much better experience than 10, 15 years ago. It was about packing as many of this genre with this much sales potential, and not as much consideration of: Is there enough drinking water? But I think they’ve improved. And if it is really hot (on Saturday) people will be really grateful for trees at Gibson Ranch.”
Cake’s currently between albums, and McCrea is eyeing late 2016 to release its latest music. The record will be the follow-up to 2011’s “Showroom of Compassion,” which debuted at the top of Billboard’s album charts. By selling 44,000 copies in a week, just a fraction of the usual blockbuster release, “Showroom of Compassion” set a record for the lowest-selling album to top the charts.
Either way, the band members viewed the No. 1 slot as a victory for the little guys. “Showroom of Compassion” was a self-released effort, unlike its previous albums, which were backed by major labels.
“Our music, although it’s had some commercial success, it’s just not about that for us,” said McCrea. “It was an album that people said, ‘If you try and release this on your own label, it’ll be fraught with difficulty. You really should stick with a label.’ We didn’t listen to that, and we did OK. For those reasons it was a salutatory moment for us.”
As a songwriter with a wry sense of contemporary culture and current events, it’s certainly a ripe time for subject matter, especially as the current presidential race unfolds and rhetoric becomes ever thick. The challenge for McCrea is to craft lyrics that don’t sound dated a few years down the line, that they’re not overly connected to a particular time and place. The greater goal is to tap into the spirit and tone of the day to create lyrics that reflect more universal truths.
“I don’t like the idea of making music that’s only useful during a very short period of time,” said McCrea. “It’s a great time, but also a time to be careful about it, in terms of not getting so carried away with the drama of the moment that you forget about making a song that might be useful in a different decade. I like listening to music from 70 years ago that still makes sense to me.”
Meanwhile, Cake will soon be shedding more of its Sacramento lineage. Bassist Gabe Nelson will depart the band in September, leaving trumpeter Vince DiFiore as the sole Sacramentan in Cake. Though Cake formed in Sacramento circa the early 1990s, McCrea has called Oakland home for 10 years and drummer Paulo Baldi also lives in the Bay Area. Guitarist Xan McCurdy calls Portland home.
McCrea sees Sacramento as fairly different place, especially in terms of the cost of living, compared to the city that hosted Cake’s first gigs more than 20 years ago.
“The reason why Sacramento worked for me in terms of starting a band had a lot to do with something that’s now more scarce, which is cheap rent,” said McCrea. “If you want to do things that society doesn’t automatically value, like songwriting or writing novels, you need cheap rent. In terms of being able to ride your bike around midtown and live in an apartment that’s $375 a month, that’s pretty much gone. I love the downtown and midtown area, and I really like most of what’s happening to it. But it is a little sad to watch friends of mine who are artists being pushed out.”
But this City of Trees remains connected to Cake. The band still runs a solar-powered studio in East Sacramento, and McCrea visits about once a month. And soon it will be time for one lucky festivalgoer to win one of Cake’s trees.
“We usually refrain from doing our tree thing at festivals, because of the vomit and dust and drunkenness,” said McCrea. “But I think at this one we’ve just got to. Thematically, it makes sense.”
City of Trees
What: Cake headlines a new Sacramento music festival presented by Radio 94.7 FM, with Of Monsters And Men, James Bay and more.
When: 2:30-10 p.m. Saturday
Where: Gibson Ranch County Park, 8556 Gibson Ranch Park Road, Elverta
Cost: $49.50, kids ages 10 and under free when accompanied by adult.