The Damnations
November 4

Sacramento, California's Cake gave its die-hard fans exactly what they wanted: a live representation of the loose, indifferent mentality inherent in all three of its major-label releases. But don't blow them off as an irreverent schlock band. Throughout the 15-song set, the talented band combined Vincent Di Fiore's disciplined trumpet with lead singer John McCrea's apathetic vocal delivery and guitarist Xan McCurdy's potent Les Paul playing.

With a simplistic mountain setting for a backdrop, the quintet came onstage dressed in full Western regalia: cowboy hats, Wrangler jeans, big-ass belt buckles, and cowboy boots--fully passable as a hillbilly cover band. The goateed, plaid-shirted McCrea resembled E.R.'s Anthony Edwards dressed as country star Tim McGraw.

Beginning with the jazzy "Is This Love," Cake quickly established a solid connection with its dedicated audience. How dedicated? For the majority of the evening, they acted as McCrea's backup singers. Though the concert was far from sold out--no need to open the balcony--the loud audience showed their commitment in full voice.

The talents of Di Fiore, who toted a suitcase of oddball instruments, were hard to ignore. The slow notes oozing from his trumpet punctuated most of the songs and drew raves from the crowd throughout the set, including such gems as Fashion Nugget's "Friend Is a Four-Letter Word" and "Frank Sinatra," and Prolonging the Magic's "Mexico." Di Fiore also kept busy with maracas and keyboards intermittently.

Without a doubt, singer/songwriter McCrea is the main attraction. His style of delivery is straightforward, his vocals coming across almost as though he's thinking aloud. But he did change his pace a bit, most notably on "Nugget," which featured his subdued vocals delivered in a style reminiscent of folk-rapper Beck.

Though the set design was bare-boned, cheesy candelabra flickered at either end of the stage, and the band occasionally utilized a miniature bubble machine. Whatever the intended purpose, both touches proved effective.

In true country-western style, McCrea introduced a handful of numbers as "sad songs," including "Italian Leather Sofa" and "Satan Is My Motor," which were anything but glum. "Leather Sofa" allowed Xan McCurdy and his Les Paul guitar to take center stage; "Satan" found the entire band working on all cylinders.

Predictably, Cake's main radio hit, "The Distance," and its cover of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" were met with thunderous applause, and both songs allowed McCurdy to break into concise jams.

With the hits already having been played, the crowd's attention waned a bit near show's end, but no one appeared disappointed by Cake's performance. The band may never achieve incredible mainstream success, but it appears to be happy playing the smaller theater circuit.

The Damnations opened with a country-tinged show of their own. If the Indigo Girls sang country songs, they'd sound just like Damnation. Their down-home sounds made only a lukewarm impression on the crowd, though a bluesy solo near the end of the set was worthy of praise.

--John Benson

Meat Beat Manifesto
Josh Wink
Grassy Knoll
November 2

Meat Beat Manifesto fans in Europe show up in herds to see such techno artists perform. Fans in Cleveland were only numerous enough to form a small assemblage at the Odeon. Not even the most sensitive claustrophobic would have bristled.

Kicking off its set at just after 10 p.m., Meat Beat Manifesto held the audience captive for nearly an hour and a half--its combination of dance beats, video screens, and intelligent lighting providing ample stimuli for the crowd. Though drum loops and digital percussion were scattered through some songs, most of Meat Beat Manifesto's drums were provided by a live drummer.

The video screen displayed images ranging from A Clockwork Orange to The Graduate to scenes of fire and forests. The images weren't random pictures carelessly strung together; they followed the tempo of the music, changing scene with every beat. Similarly, the moving lights complemented the mood set by the music and followed the beat much like the onstage dancer.

Most fans simply bobbed their heads along with the beat of the music, though a few brave souls let loose with more physical responses. Although techno music is holding onto its popularity, it's never been called overly exciting to watch. There's a reason why techno doesn't get out of clubs much bigger than the 900-capacity Odeon. Most people likely don't want to pay money to see a couple of guys behind a desk push buttons; they could follow their parents to work to see that.

Fortunately, Meat Beat Manifesto falls outside such doldrums. The live drums, live keyboards, live vocals, and occasionally live bass guitar set Meat Beat Manifesto in another realm.

Not much can be said for the two acts preceding Meat Beat Manifesto. Grassy Knoll lived up to the button-pushing scenario painted above, injecting the audience with droning songs laced with typical samples.

Josh Wink took advantage of the video screen with footage of Cleveland, highlighting the Flats and the studios of WENZ-FM. Alongside samples of Boogie Nights' Dirk Diggler, saying, "I'm only here because I have a gift," and a Mr. Rogers soundalike stating that when he was younger he wanted to grow up and marry his mother was a Spinal Tap-ish voice proclaiming "Hello Cleveland" over and over.

--Alex Capaldi

The Saw Doctors
The Francis Quinn Band
The Odeon
November 5

The Saw Doctors, hailing from Tuam, County Galway, have worked ten years to become Ireland's hottest music export. Last year's Sing a Powerful Song retrospective introduced the quartet to Americans who missed out on earlier releases like If This Is Rock 'n' Roll, I Want My Old Job Back, and Same Oul' Town. Word finally started getting around after the band played to 30,000 people at the 1997 Guinness Fleadh in New York.

Saving other densely populated Irish cities like Boston for later, the Doctors kicked off their 1998 tour in Cleveland last Thursday. To the near-capacity Odeon crowd, it was like an extra St. Patty's Day. Few wore green on the cold, late autumn night--but some Irish flags were waved proudly overhead.

The Saw Doctors, named for the traveling journeymen who sharpen and repair saws, have a penchant for curing standard pop melodies, blending country and folk elements into a vibrant, infectious roots rock combination. The band's sound is decidedly less militant than Black 47, less political than early U2, but more updated and accessible than the Commitments.

Singer Davy Carton was a focal point in his velvet purple shirt, strumming acoustic and electric guitars on "Going Back to Tuam" and "Same Old Song." Bassist Pearse Doherty and guitarist Leo Moran supported Carton with effective backing vocals, effortless musicianship, and good humor. The musicians' brogues only added to the charm inherent in the lighthearted songs.

"We're going to play another tune," Moran announced after every other number, his words coming out anudder choon each time. But there was no mistaking the message in this music; Carton's simple verses about friendship and heartache were as Americanized as could be.

John Donnelly throttled his drums on rockers like "Blah Blah Blah" and "Tommy K," but applied a gentler touch for ballads "Clare Island" and "Share the Darkness." The band's guest keyboard player, Derek Murray, summoned squeezebox sounds from a Korg synthesizer. Murray strapped on an accordion more than once, joining his mates in the center-stage antics.

Doherty broke out a tin whistle for the spirited "Macna Parade," a ditty about the cultural arts festival of the same name. The bespectacled, stubble-chinned Moran took lead vocals on country drive song "Galway and Mayo," which came across more urgently than on record.

"My Heart Is Livin' (in the '60s Still)" found the middle-aged Doctors celebrating their glory days as hippies, while "Sugartown" spoke of the dreams of a younger generation in a city known for its sugar beet industry.

Highlights included other cuts from the new Songs From Sun Street, like the upbeat "Joyce Country Ceili Band" and "I'll Be on My Way." All went over well, but fans responded more enthusiastically to tried-and-true numbers like "To Win Just Once," "Best of Friends," and "The Green and Red of Mayo." Carton encouraged his minions to shout the chorus to "N17" with abandon, and they did just that.

"Wish I was on the N17!" they yelled, as if everyone present was familiar with driving stick-shift left-handed on the right side of the Irish highway connecting Tuam with Galway City.

Lovers of Irish rock would do well to update their collection with The Best of U2 1980-1990, but discriminating lads and lasses would do even better to check out the Saw Doctors' Sun Street and catch their exuberant live show next time around.

Local pub vets the Francis Quinn Band welcomed the early birds with a half-hour of traditional music. Joined by Billy Chambers (acoustic guitar), Brendan Carr (percussion), and Patrick Quinn (banjo, flute, and whistle), Francis Quinn fiddled and sang with confidence--fighting a poor sound system all the while.

Pat Quinn alternated between his banjo and bouzouki--a stringed instrument with the body of a lute and neck of a guitar. Carr was content to sit back and thump on his bodhran, a sort of portable bass drum that a player holds with his arm and beats with a cipin or tipper stick. Chambers led the chorus for drinking anthem "Easy and Free" and got "jiggy" with a version of "Finnegan's Wake." The group's bittersweet ballads and merry reels provided the perfect warm-up for this crowd, despite the occasional screeches and squawks in the monitors.

--Pete Roche

Joan Jones
Three Finger Cowboy
Peabody's DownUnder
November 7

The secret to a good fastball is catching your opponent off guard. Just as he's sitting back and waiting for a curve or a slider, you give him the high heat, and he doesn't know what hit him.

The same goes for good bands. If their musical style is predictable, the audience will turn on them faster than Jim Thome turns on a ball in his wheelhouse. Fortunately, the musical stylings of Fastball did succeed in giving last Saturday night's Peabody's DownUnder crowd a plethora of sounds. But was it enough?

With over fifteen songs during its hour-plus set, the Austin four-piece did its best to show it's more than a one-trick pony. To this point, the annoying summertime hit "The Way" has pretty much been it, as far as radio goes.

Unlike the midtempo, non-threatening single, Fastball came on stage and showed it could rock right from the start. The highly electric "Emily" featured bass player Tony Scalzo on lead vocals. Though the song was an attention-getter, Scalzo's nasally vocals detracted from the tune's impact. In fact, this was pretty much the case every time he opened his mouth.

It wasn't until guitar player Miles Zuniga took over lead vocal duties on "Damaged Goods," the band's third song of the night, that Fastball really came together. With an enthusiasm that bled into the music, Zuniga's singing was quite appealing, and his bluesy guitar aided the song as well. The intimacy of the tune and the small club was punctuated when Zuniga slowly started strumming the familiar chords to Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine." As soon as the audience caught on, they erupted into applause and helped sing along to the ten-year-old song. Okay, so it took the inclusion of this '80s track to reach the audience, but it was well worth it.

Fastball did attempt to mix up its set a bit by dabbling in various styles of music. They used a folk rock sound on "Nowhere Road," an in-your-face approach with "Eater," and an all-out, abrasive delivery with "G.O.D. (Good Old Days). Although it wasn't a severe departure, they did show the audience their range of musical talents.

"The Way" came about halfway through the set. Once again, Scalzo's uninspiring voice--which sounds like a mixture of Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello--was a main contributor to the song's monotony. The song's repetitive nature doesn't really do the band justice. And, when it's your only hit, you've got a problem on your hands.

Using interestingly echo-filled guitar harmonics, Zuniga then led the band through "Sweetwater, Texas." A ballad of sorts, the visceral song showed yet another side of Fastball.

So did Fastball succeed in showing the audience it could do more than just sing its one hit? Yes. But the true question is whether this band has enough in its arsenal to make it in the big leagues. While they did show diversity, it appears that this Fastball may not have the heat needed to sustain interest for long. But who knows? There's always a career in coaching.

The night began with the alt-pop music of Three Finger Cowboy. The Alabama quartet offered a run-of-the-mill plastic pop sound that wasn't too far removed from Letters to Cleo or Juliana Hatfield. Their strength was in their formidable guitar playing. Unfortunately, their vocals were banal, and the off-key harmonies didn't help. Granted, they were entertaining, but Three Finger Cowboy didn't captivate the audience enough to demand attention.

The female rock music movement was in full effect as Joan Jones displayed her VH1-friendly style. Sounding like a melange of Sheryl Crow, Jewel, and Paula Cole, Jones leaned more into the rock road for her set. The bluesy, braided-hair singer proved she had musical talent as she played a horn, keyboards, and guitar. Unfortunately, the only glitter during her set was found on her arms.

--John Benson

Brian Setzer Orchestra
8-1/2 Souvenirs
Kent State MAC Center
November 7

You never thought 16-to-22-year-olds could look so sophisticated until you've been to a Brian Setzer Orchestra concert. Pumps and wingtips, satin skirts and pin stripes, chignons and Sinatra fedoras--I guess the orange hair and flannel got boring.

And they were cutting a rug even before the music started. It's nice to see people clearing the way and cheering on fellow jitterbuggers instead of elbowing each other or spinning around in solipsistic circles.

Setzer is only part of the swing revival, but he may have gotten it started 15 years ago with the Stray Cats' "Rock This Town," when he had the nervy genius to call a bearded baby boomer a "real square cat," while wearing a pompadour that made Fabian look like Billy Corgan. The Stray Cats might have been a cartoon, but swing's rebirth is apparently more homage than irony, judging from the nearly sold-out crowd at the MAC Center last Saturday night.

The orchestra started playing before the curtain went up: the theme from Austin Powers. Then Setzer jumped onstage in a lime green tuxedo, identical to the guys seated in Benny Goodman-style boxes behind him, and swing-shuffled Chuck Berry style all over the stage in his glittery silver shoes. He's great at working a crowd, talking and telling jokes.

"I can't stop doing these cat songs," he told the audience as he went into "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

Setzer is still a virtuoso guitarist and rockabilly specialist at heart, shifting between a Gretsch Sparkle Jet and '59 Gretsch 6920. For all his smoking, he could still hit the high notes, even in "Since I Don't Have You."

From the first trumpet blast of "Hoodoo Voodoo," the orchestra was jumpin' and smokin'. The best performances were "Dirty Boogie," "Mellow Sax," and, of course, Louis Prima's "Jump Jive and Wail."

The musicians only got better and outdid themselves with all three of their encores. Highlights were a drum solo that inspired Setzer to fan the drummer with a white T-shirt, and a down and dirty jam between the standup bass and Setzer. There were also some flashes of humor. As hot pink lights bathed the stage, the group performed an interlude of Henry Mancini's "Theme from the Pink Panther" during "Stray Cat Strut," and came back for an encore with a version of the Champs' "Tequila," all the while doing a Conga line dressed in pineapple-yellow jackets.

Although the acoustics of the gym tended to absorb the mellow notes and spit out the brass, Setzer and his orchestra could almost convince you that rock and roll never needed to be invented.

The Austin band 8-1/2 Souvenirs was subtle and understated, where the Orchestra was raucous and brassy. Playing before a dingy, gray curtain, they made you feel you were in a nightclub in Paris, which may be because the founder and lead guitarist is from France. Their chanteuse gave them an air of sophistication; the crowd applauded them after each song and didn't seem eager to get them off the stage. They would be a gem at the Nautica Stage, and somewhere in their future is an appearance as guest musicians on the Prairie Home Companion. They're too good to be an opener.

--Sarah E. Tascone