The Cat Empire is a band I’ve been following with my children since their inception (inception of the band and my children). We are fans of the jazz-fusion rhythms, to which we have danced equally enthusiastically at concerts and around our lounge room. With the original six-piece line-up now going in different directions we took the opportunity to see their last Melbourne show: it was a crackerjack of equal-weight poignancy and fine music, with the overlay of sheer excitement at it being the first large-scale event we attended since Covid lockdowns stopped the music industry in its tracks. Phenomenal! So wonderful that I felt inspired to write about it … while tenderly nursing the blisters that developed, from dancing on the downward slope of the ampitheatre, for the first time in my life on the underside of my toes: go figure.
After twenty years The Cat Empire is splitting up: the concerts at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl signalled the end of an era. Felix Riebl (singer, songwriter, band leader) was clearly emotional to be farewelling the jazz-fusion band’s members, most particularly Harry Angus (singer, songwriter), one of the original six.
The Cat Empire have always attracted a diverse audience: young and old, from many walks of life. The Bowl’s crowd contained toddlers to septuagenarians, all with one thing in common: they loved the music and their dancing proved it.
The support act, JazzParty, got the audience into the mood with their energetic beats interspersed with slower numbers. Between bands a small troupe of African drummers mingled with the audience, playing complex rhythms on a variety of drums. They were highly talented and their beaming smiles attested to their enjoyment.
Ollie McGill, The Cat Empire’s keyboard player and another of the original six, then played slow and transcendent tunes while a photo-video montage of the band from inception to today played on the big screens. These images were contextualised chronologically with their albums and concert venues. McGill’s half-hour set allowed the audience to reminisce, while building excitement for the full band to come.
As the seagulls whirling over the Bowl became silhouettes against the orange sunset, the nine-piece band played songs both old and new, from all their studio albums. Riebl introduced each song’s history, from their first hits – ‘it’s funny how songs written when I was 19 are world-famous now; it’s hard to reconcile their legacy’ – to the song he penned during Covid-19 lockdown, performed for the first time at this concert. When international lockdowns hit in early 2020, the band was embarking on a tour in Spain, causing them an anxious plane ride into Australia – for which they were extremely grateful – and the sudden stillness of no activity.
The people thanked were numerous: many people had assisted the band through their twenty-year history. The two-hour set featured special guests who had played key roles in the band’s mentoring and success: a musician older than the band members who had helped them when starting out sang a duet with Angus; flamenco dancers entertained with their heel-tapping frenzy, their intense energy shown by the sweat running down their faces; and a classical guitarist provided additional melody integrated into an Empire song.
The energy rose as the natural light dimmed. The audience erupted when the horn section played the unmistakable introduction to their first big hit ‘Hello Hello’, Felix donning his iconic cap which featured in the official music video. Thousands of people in the seated section and on the lawn were dancing, picnic blankets tucked away or carefully avoided by the many jumping feet. The sense of freedom was incredible: the shared feeling that we’ve come out the other side of the Covid-19 lockdowns and Melbourne’s live music is back! Melbourne concert crowds have always held a reputation for being polite and respectful, and this heaving mass of elation was no exception.
The Cat Empire started in Melbourne Town, alluded to in the lyrics of many of their early songs. Felix repeatedly stated that the Melbourne music scene has always had a special energy, so they were thrilled to play their final concerts in their home town. For long-term fans and newcomers alike, this memorable farewell concert spanning well-sequenced music from their extensive catalogue brimmed with poignancy at the glory that has passed and will never be again, and the sheer vibrancy of the jazz-fusion rhythms and magnificent solos which allowed each band member to shine.