It’s Halloween night at the Wild Buffalo, and the crowd is abuzz with anticipation. Fake spider webs stretch over a sea of vampires, construction workers, and ghosts. A man in a dinosaur costume shakes hands with Baby Cakes’ guitarist and vocalist, Miles Harris, who is dressed in purple as Prince.
The group steps into their first song, “Kick It Right,” a new track they haven’t yet recorded. Harris, backed by two vocalists, is a natural showman. Drummer Kevin Chryst, who’s decked out in ‘80s athletic wear, muscles through the beat — this is funk, after all — while a horn trio lets loose in unison.
The bassist and keyboardist add heft to the rhythm section and fill out the sound. The band shifts seamlessly between their own work and covers of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and Madonna’s “Into the Groove.”
“People love Halloween in Bellingham,” vocalist Stephanie Walbon says. “Everyone’s there to have a good time … and they do it like it’s their job.”
The day after the concert, I sat down with Walbon, Harris, and Chryst at Chryst’s home in Bellingham.
Though Baby Cakes is a nine-piece band (a nonet, for the music majors out there) the trio sitting across from me handles the bulk of the songwriting duties — though everyone has a say in the final product.
Baby Cakes was originally conceived as a five-piece band in 2014, when Chryst scrambled together a handful of musicians for a New Year’s Eve show at Chair 9, a restaurant in Glacier where Walbon worked at the time.
“I basically just handpicked this crew of slaying players,” Chryst says. “We pulled it off and kind of snowballed from there.”
The group started off playing covers but transitioned to original music a couple years ago. By now they’ve played most of Bellingham’s local venues, as well as Seattle nightclubs, fundraisers, birthday parties, a memorial service, and lots and lots of weddings — everywhere from elite resorts to down-in-the-dirt campgrounds, Chryst says.
Thanks to their work ethic, they’ve placed in Bellingham Alive’s Best of the Northwest competition for Best Local Band/Performer three times.
“We kind of fell into this wonderful, exciting vibe together, where we’re like, cutting our teeth as a crew together, not really knowing where we’re going, but knowing that we were making some magic happen,” Chryst says.
They released their debut, self-titled album — a raucous celebration of funk and soul history — in 2018. Nearly every song blazes with the sound of a band at the top of their form, but most surprising is the record closer, a haunting cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”
The track opens with a lumbering, two-note bassline, soft horns, and an echoing drumbeat —
like a reggae song played in half-time. Walbon and vocalist Kendall Lujan trade smoky vocals before Harris joins the chorus and the three harmonize.
By the end, the rest of the band has joined in for a hair-raising finale. It’s a moment of staggering emotion on an album otherwise intent on getting listeners out of their seats.
“That’s always been tradition in music, to cover and reinterpret something that you hold in such high regard,” Chryst says. “And so Fleetwood Mac, certainly, is one of those artists for us.”
Covers were what first sparked Harris’s imagination when he came on board as a sub, a couple years after the band formed. When he was young, he and his sister would listen to Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Greatest Hits” on a beat-up Walkman, so when he got a chance to play those songs live it was like a dream come true, he says.
“I knew in that moment, I remember I was like, ‘I have to be in this band,’” Harris says. “Because this is the best feeling I’ve ever had making music with people in my professional life. This is magic. I can’t not do this with these people.”
Outside of Baby Cakes, much of the band teaches privately, volunteers, or collaborates with business owners to keep Bellingham’s music scene alive.
The band even played fundraisers for middle school music programs. Walbon says she wants to provide fertile soil for other bands to grow. The group is fond of events like Bellingham’s Downtown Sounds, and hopes the local government continues to support the arts.
“In this wild, wild world that we’re in, I think creativity in the arts is something we can all get behind,” Chryst says, adding that people vote with their dollar when they support local music and venues. “We need to step up and be a part of that continuing support.”
Still, she adds, being able to sustain yourself through music (emotionally, not financially) is often more difficult in a relatively small town.
“There’s something to be said about not compromising what you stand for, and Baby Cakes definitely won’t do that,” Harris says. “Nobody puts Baby Cakes in a corner.”
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