ROAD-TESTED: The Australian band were playing to thousands before they’d released their first CD.
The red-faced trumpet player screeches into the upper register as a jumble of timbales and turntable noise surges through the PA. The shaggy-haired keyboardist bops his head, banging out a montuno vamp. The bassist thumps out a bottom-heavy groove. Across the stage, a lanky singer sporting a flat cap and an Aussie accent shouts into the mic. Throngs of sweaty twentysomethings react to this assault on the senses by bobbing and weaving in unison. Suddenly this brisk Latin pace gives way as the sextet downshift to a slow ska beat. A cheer of release and gratitude erupts from the dance floor.
That was the scene last October when the Cat Empire played the Paradise. An eclectic Melbourne group who’d enjoyed platinum success on their home turf, they had only one six-song EP in US stores. But yes, they had a rock-club crowd dancing. In Boston. And that’s the reception they’ve come to expect since their kinetic set at last year’s Bonnaroo festival. A frenzied amalgamation of pop hooks, Latin rhythms, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy horns, and distinctly Melburnian humor, a Cat Empire gig is something of a circus. You can see for yourself when they return to the Paradise this Sunday to support their full-length American debut, Two Shoes (Velour).
The band actually got their start on the carnival circuit — back in 2001, they landed a gig with the Famous Spiegeltent, a traveling revue featuring everything from comedy to trad circus routines. “The first night there’d be 15 people,” Cat Empire frontman Felix Riebl recalls when I catch him on the phone at home in Melbourne. “But by the end of the week there’d be 500. We traveled with the tent to Adelaide, and the same thing happened. Then we went to the Edinburgh Festival and the same thing happened over there. We hadn’t released a CD, but we could play to thousands of people.”
When the Cat Empire did release their homonymous debut, in 2003, it was quickly certified platinum. But they didn’t feel they’d captured the circus-like feel of their shows. That’s what led them to Havana with British producer Jerry Boys, where they tracked down the same studio Ry Cooder used for his Buena Vista Social Club sessions.
“Cuba was a bit crazy,” says Riebl, who describes the Third World studio as “an old wooden-shoe factory that had a half-broken-down desk that we managed to get a sound out of — most days.” Working without soundproof booths, they recorded much of Two Shoes in single takes, and the result captures their range of styles if not quite their live energy. They do nail the Latin/funk/hip-hop hybrid “Hello,” but the opening “Sly,” a single that’s starting to get some American airplay, doesn’t stands up to the live counterpart on the DVD that’s included with Two Shoes. The blaring horns and oddball lyrics (“She caterpillar so good that all the greeks go ‘killa’/Break and enter take ya like a glass of milk then ‘spill ya’ ”) just come off better with an audience.
And Riebl senses this. “We’ve always been able to adapt and be influenced by all the things around us — the cities we’ve been to, the performers we’ve met, the different sounds we’ve listened to. I think that festival nature of the band has been its greatest strength.”
THE CAT EMPIRE | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | February 11 | 617.931.2000
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