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Cake, Tegan and Sara, Gogol Bordello/Hammerstein Ballroom, New York/Jan. 20, 2006

“Now tickets to concerts and drinking at clubs,
Sometimes for music that you haven’t even heard of.
And how much did you pay for your rock ‘n’ roll T-shirt
That proves you were there,
That you heard of them first?
How do you afford your rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle?”
— Cake, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Lifestyle” (1994)

With its song “Rock ‘N’ Roll Lifestyle,” Cake snidely skewers the idea of concert-goers eagerly shelling out money for tickets, booze and T-shirts at inflated prices. It was a highlight, if also a potentially bite-the-hand-that-feeds anthem, from the band’s debut album in 1994, when the Sacramento, Calif., band was playing clubs so tiny that its fans needn’t have worried about leaving a show with too light a wallet.

So naturally, the thousands of people who forked over 34 bucks (and many of whom could not swill $7 beers fast enough) to see Cake’s package tour in New York made for quite a sight. Of course, these days the band has five albums and a handful of alterna-rock hits to its credit, and enough of a loyal following to fill concert halls for the third installment of the Unlimited Sunshine tour.

The irony of Cake becoming just the sort of cash cow he once lyrically lampooned cannot be lost on snarky front man John McCrea, and his band hardly rose to the occasion as a headliner. Somehow, the proceedings suggested that Cake has tried a bit too hard to give folks bang for their buck.

For after two opening bands (Canadian folk-rock sister act Tegan and Sara, and self-proclaimed “gypsy punks” Gogol Bordello) and a pointless appearance from comedian Eugene Mirman (more on him later), Cake barely had enough time left to scratch out an hour-long set before the venue’s curfew crept up. The band didn’t help matters when it came to time management, as McCrea babbled on late in the show about a couple he spotted dancing romantically in the balcony, and went on a rant about the lack of “3/4 time signature” in contemporary music. Cake also took a seemingly interminable five-minute encore break, then offered a sloppy rendition of the sea-shanty style ballad “Mexico.”

McCrea mentioned that “we don’t have a lot of time” and indicated his band would squeeze in two more songs — which was enough to draw boos and heckling from the segment of the audience that was not too intoxicated to realize it was being treated to an abbreviated set. Then, amid confusion onstage, McCrea asked into the microphone, “What time is it exactly right now?” and sprinted off into the wings, before returning to cap the nght with Cake’s best-known song, the wearing-thin novelty hit from ’96, “The Distance.”

The performance had held much more promise earlier. Cake set the mood with the dark, deliberate grooves of well-chosen opener “Frank Sinatra,” and scored with rousing if nonsensical singalongs “Sheep Go to Heaven” and “Shadow Stabbing.” At the set’s highest points, Vince DiFiore‘s trumpet accentuated the celebratory mood with its bright bursts of notes.

But such lukewarmly received offerings as “Wheels” and the laborious “No Phone” found McCrea often resorting to demonstratively hitting his vibraslap for sound effects, as if to compensate for the lack of compelling musicianship on display between verses.

Earlier, Tegan and Sara — a duo who is backed by a full band on this tour — closed strongly after an unspectacular first half hour. The bulk of their set found the sisters, who trade off on lead vocals, struggling to project their whiny wails over the mix of (sometimes three) electric guitars. They seemed entirely more comfortable and effective harmonizing on their keyboard-driven finale, “You Wouldn’t Like Me.”

Before their set, and with the evening’s schedule already looking tight, Mirman managed to draw the crowd’s ire while he wasn’t even onstage; the second half of his brief “set” consisted of a video of Mirman giving dating tips, since he apparently was recently commissioned as a “sexpert” by a popular men’s magazine. As his taped shtick grew ever tedious, boos and catcalls from the rear of the theater threatened to drown out the audio, until the presentation mercifully ended. Mirman reappared and managed a meager “Thank you” before scurrying off amid still more boos.

To those spectators, it was 10 or so minutes of wasted time. Unfortunately, that proved to be the theme of the night.

— By George Henn