Gig Review: The Cat Empire at Portsmouth Pyramids

Image by James White.

By Claire Willcox

For those not yet in the know, Melbourne’s The Cat Empire seamlessly blend a range of musical genres – reggae, turntablism, jazz, Latin American and ska – into an ear-pleasing, dance-inducing, mash-up. They deliver dazzling, uplifting live shows with a fiesta vibe, which last year over half a million people bought tickets to see.

Yet, amidst the fun, the truth is they are hugely accomplished musicians who mastered their craft through years of practice and know how to deliver a world-class performance – which is hardly surprising, as they met the old-fashioned way musicians are supposed to, through the love of music, before they all turned eighteen.

They have always blazed their own creative trail and, in their own words, ‘tricked pop radio into playing jazz’, then went on to sell over two million records.

The band formed in 1999 as a trio – Felix Riebl (vocals/percussionist), Oliver McGill (keyboards), and Ryan Monro (bass). They were joined later by other core members – Harry Angus (trumpet/vocal gymnast), Will Hull-Brown (drums), Jamshid ‘Jumps’ Khadiwala (DJ), with horns provided by Kieran Conrau and Ross Irwin. They’ve been playing to packed out, appreciative audiences ever since.

Fresh from a sold-out gig at Concord2 in Brighton on the 30th March, this is the first time The Cat Empire have played Portsmouth – and they turned the Pyramids into a carnival party, with a kaleidoscope of musical styles. The crowd danced in euphoric self-abandon. They were ably supported by Black Peaches, a southern boogie, country-soul, disco-rock and jazz band, the latest venture of Rob Smoughton (best known as a long-time member of Hot Chip and Scritti Politti). But there was no doubt which band everyone was there to see.

‘Welcome to our first gig at the Pyramids, Portsmouth under this Da Vinci style roof,’ said Felix to the crowd’s delight, before launching into ‘Wolves’, the second single from the new album Rising With The Sun – ‘a simple song created by the rhythm section playing random ideas for twenty minutes, then cutting that jam back to three and filling in the gaps.’ The band was as tight as Pink Floyd’s funeral drum on ‘One of my Turns’, yet as relaxed as The Happy Mondays’ Loose Fit, with pitch-perfect vocals taking us on a fun-packed, two-hour tour of songs from their current album and their substantial back catalogue. No fillers here; this is music with something meaningful to say, blending intelligent, thoughtful lyrics with crowd pleasing beats as only The Cat Empire can.

Felix and Harry alternated on lead vocals, with each complementing the other perfectly. I know one shouldn’t play favourites with such a talented bunch, but Harry is a crazily good trumpet soloist and a vocal gymnast with a massive range, which he showed off to perfection.

The rest of the band are certainly not hiding the light of their talent under any bushels and are extremely accomplished in their own right. Each performed mind-blowing solos which generate legions of devoted fans. ‘I came here for YOU,’ shouted one shirtless groupie while reaching to try to touch keyboardist Ollie McGill.

Standout songs were ‘How To Explain’ (‘music is the language of us all’) from their 2003 self-titled debut album and ‘Daggers Drawn’ mainly for Harry’s applause-winning high notes; a psychedelic jazz keyboard solo, which would give The Doors a run for their money; and DJ cuts worthy of a world turntablist scratch final.

Other favourites were ‘Bulls’, the crowd-pleasing, foot-stomping, current single, which saw the band’s only perceptible slip – Harry forgot to introduce it with a trumpet solo: ‘my bad – new song, sorry’. Also impressive was ‘Still Young’ (‘find your heart and find your song’) from 2013 album, Steal The Light, the band’s first independent world-wide release.

By the encore, the aptly titled ‘Wine Song’, an ode to the joys of drinking wine, the Pyramids was in full festival atmosphere, with punters singing along at the top of their voices like a group of mates who’ve consumed too much alcohol at pub kick-out time. ‘I’m going to die with a twinkle in my eye, ’cause I sung songs, spun stories, loved, laughed and drank wine… a river of red, red wine.’

The Cat Empire was having a party – and we were all invited. I couldn’t stop singing, dancing and grinning the entire night.

The lyrics of ‘The Chariot’, the last song of the evening, sum up The Cat Empire at their best:

Our weapons were our instruments

Made from our timber and steel

We never yielded to conformity

But stood like kings

In a chariot that’s riding on a record wheel

Maybe if the world contained

More people like these

Then the news would not be telling me

‘Bout all that warfare endlessly.

‘What a wonderful group of people to play to for our first time here. That was fun!’ summarised Felix. I’d have to agree.

If you missed The Cat Empire at Portsmouth, they are touring the UK until the 15th April.

Rising With The Sun is the band’s seventh album. It debuted at number one in the ARIA and AIR Album Charts in Australia, and in the top twenty, in sixteen countries, across six different continents on iTunes. It is available on digital download from itunes or from The Cat Empire Store.


Image by James White. Find more images at his website and check out his blog on The Cat Empire gig.