The Cat Empire Blazes in Midtown Saturday Night
Saturday night at their midtown stop on their current world tour, eclectic Melbourne, Australia rockers the Cat Empire had a smoke machine onstage, but they didn’t need it. The audience was their smoke machine. There probably hasn’t been so much ganja in the air at a concert anywhere in New York since John Brown’s Body and the Easy Star All-Stars played a doublebill on 4/20 a couple of years ago. On one hand, this band’s music is a lot more energetic than what you’d expect a bunch of stoners to be into: the crowd danced, twenty rows deep, throughout the group’s relentlessly bouncy two hours onstage. On the other hand, as the show went on, it all made sense: the band’s cartoon cat logo emblazoned on a bed of jungle greenery; the frequent departures into slinky reggae and latin grooves; the thicket of percussion, the interwoven harmonies of the three-piece brass section, and the blippy sonics flitting from turntablist Jamshid Khadiwala’s decks.
As it turns out, co-frontman/percussionist Felix Riebl is a better singer live than he is in the studio, probably because he feeds off the crowd’s energy. So is the band’s other frontman, trumpeter Harry James Angus, who plays with much the same electrically jazzy touch as his namesake and sang with an unselfconsciously warm blue-eyed soul delivery. Tight as the band is, they don’t seem to take themselves the least bit seriously: a couple of brief stabs at choreographed stage moves fell apart quickly and haphazardly, and drummer Will Hull-Brown’s one extended solo of the night turned what could have been an easy excuse for a bathroom break into a clever parody of stadium rock excess. Ryan Monro played with an elegant propulsiveness on both electric and upright bass underneath the polymath brilliance of keyboardist Ollie McGill, who switched effortlessly from sardonic Steely Dan jazz inflections, to biting reggae, joyous ska and ominously swirling organ. At one point, he was playing organ in his right hand, piano in his left and blowing into a melodica for extra texture. And his two longest, most extended solos were spine-tingling, the first beginning as Ran Blake noir before warping into Chano Dominguez flamenco jazz, the second quoting from both Ray Manzarek and Rod Argent in a whirlwind of echoey Fender Rhodes raindrops.
As the show went on, the band sped the songs up, slowed them down and bedeviled the dancers with trick endings. Counterintuitively, they closed the set with All Night Loud, a murky organ-fueled tone poem on album that they took doublespeed into upbeat ska. And as energetic as the show was, they mixed up the moods, from the soul-flavored groove of Steal the Light (the title track to their new album), to the fiery latin ska of Like a Drum, the defiantly anthemic “show me the money” sarcasm of Sly, and finally peaked during the encores with their towering, anthemic, Midnight Oil-influenced hit Chariot. “Our instruments are our weapons,” the whole band sang, and as with many of the songs, the crowd joined in.