Miami Marketta was the unlikely setting for the Gold Coast stop of The Cat Empire’s latest tour. Unlikely due to its size (they sold out at 1200 tickets), but a perfect match in vibe and sentiment. You have to respect a band that can easily pack out a medium sized venue but chooses the thrum and thrill of a small one, including the smaller fee from ticket sales.
Fun and quirky Brisbane-based beat-boxer Tom Thum warmed up the crowd with his own brand of vocal acrobatics – a mix of traditional beat boxing mixed with a variety of frighteningly accurate instrumental sounds, layered over one another to form entirely vocal tracks that would fool anyone who hadn’t watched him creating them live. He took some time to explain and demonstrate to the crowd all the different electronic vocal effects that he utilises with an endearing enthusiasm, declaring at one point “So cheat. Much gimmick. Many happy”. Love, Tom Thum. Me many happy too.
Madre Monte are a loud, tight and shouty Brazilian ska / Cuban Salsa band who are all inarguably talented musicians but to me personally sounded like a bit like a “how to” tape, made for people who wanted to learn to play in the style. All the elements were there and perfectly lined up, but for some reason they never managed to hook me in. Their performance style is so I’ve-just-munched-a-packet-of-No-Doze energised that it was no surprise to see the jumping and writhing masses closer to the front of the stage. I doubt you could be that close to these guys and not become infected by the energy they were putting out. However, for me standing comfortably outside the saliva spray perimeter, I’m sorry to say that it was a case of ‘heard it all before.’
If you’ve never seen two dudes in red felt berets dancing pop and lock style to a reggae-ska-Latin-rock-jazz-funk-salsa-pop fusion band, then I guess you’ve never been to a Cat Empire gig. And if you’ve never been to a Cat Empire gig, then where the hell have you been for the last 14 years? Perennial Melbournian favourites and Australian festival stalwarts, this six piece core group of mish-mashed musos and their recurring guests have taken a whole bunch of influences, chewed them up and honked out something that sounds only ever like The Cat Empire can.
They eased the crowd in with (relatively speaking) recent track Still Young, from 2013’s Steal The Light, which had just enough of that anthem-like quality to get the audience “woah oh oh oh oh”ing along from the get go. My personal favourite Fishies had everybody up and dancing except for keyboard player Ollie McGill, partly because of the necessity of having to sit down during his frankly breathtaking keys solo, and partly because he is the World’s Calmest Musician. He was like a touchstone in a sea of turbulence.
After setting up Like A Drum with a driving horn intro that reminded me of nothing so much as a groovy 70s cop show theme, the Cats, joined by members of Madre Monte, gave themselves over to the Latin rhythms. When The Cat Empire go Latin, the individuals get to shine. Bongo solos, sax, drums… everyone had a crack. While it’s always great to draw attention to the sheer musical mastery demonstrated by the guys and gals that stood on that stage during the gig, at some point things can begin to degenerate into musical wankery. For me that point kicked in around the twelve minute mark, and I began to fidget. It turned into white noise, there was nothing to grab onto. It was like they’d forgotten the audience was there, listening. Then frantic, thumping percussion kicked in, Hairy Harry Angus picked up that mic, and would have blown the goddamn lid of the place, if there had been one to blow. Harry Angus can SCAT. Like a boss.
When the band is just kicking back and doing their thing like in the chilled and groovy Two Shoes, there is no one quite like them. It can feel like you’re hanging in your lounge room and they are sitting opposite you just having a jam, and Felix Riebl is swaying there, smiling and making up songs about the world and its whimsy. Their ability to engage a crowd that way is one of the things that makes them so good to see, live. The audience is essentially just an extension of the band.
In show of their appreciation for their audience, The Cat Empire decided to have a contest in which one musical fan would get the opportunity to jump on stage with them for part of the set. For the Gold Coast gig, the lucky winner was a young violinist called Gareth, who, nervous as he must have been, jumped up and rocked the place to its core during fan favourite Sly. The thunderous crowd, demanding more, were assured he would be back in a couple of songs, which he was. In fact at one point it seemed the stage had something in the vicinity of 20 artists on it, just having one giant musical party with the rest of us.
As soon as the horn riff for Hello rang out, there was not a person standing still in the entire place. It was like Australia’s Happiest Riot. All Night Loud rounded off a mostly memorable set with a bang, before the troops came back into the fore with a short and sweet encore that concluded with, happily and predictably, The Chariot. I challenge anyone to listen to Harry Angus play that poignant trumpet intro to The Chariot and not get goosebumps. Live, it is even more of a visceral experience.
There was limited talking during the set. Really, their music speaks volumes. The venue and lighting were excellent, the sound crisp and clear, although the vocals did get lost in a mix on several occasions. A few throwaway numbers here and there during the evening couldn’t detract from what was really just a romping good time had by all. If I have any criticism, it’s that the band’s almost too-polished, too-practiced feeling has somewhat detracted from pure raw energy and edge that they used to display. But considering they’ve been writing quality songs and doing virtually back-to-back national and international tours for the last 14 years, I’d say the spark is still alive and kicking for The Cat Empire.