music

Big Cats Come Out to Play—The Cat Empire at Melbourne Zoo Twilights Review

February 18, 2020

Lauren Berry

Dance-party aficionados The Cat Empire brought a musically-ferocious, family-friendly fiesta to Melbourne Zoo’s Twilights event this summer.

A beautiful, warm afternoon at the Zoo welcomed a flood of young families, hipsters and music fans to tour the sleepy animal enclosures before settling down for a picnic on the expansive lawn in front of the main stage. The sun was setting so softly that the crowd were relaxed; eating burgers, sipping beers and enjoying the wholesome company of their loved ones. Anticipation was brewing, but for the present the concert-goers were content to bask in their simple current existence, listening passively to the DJ sets and compassionately to opening act Emily Wurramara’s moving performance and heartfelt storytelling — which was articulated with one of the most powerful voices I’ve heard in a long time.

In the fifteen minutes before The Cat Empire were ready to perform, we joined the younger, more eager (and likely-experienced) fans to form a mosh pit before the main stage. We were worried that the picnickers may be annoyed at us for obstructing their view, but they were so idle, lounging on the grass, bathing in the twilight, that no one seemed to mind or make any kind of comment. The sound guys came out to test the equipment and our ears pricked up at the resounding power of the drum kit; the bass drum felt like a kick in the chest. The rest of the crowd buzzed, crawling from their picnic blankets to a standing position. Now we were an audience.

Then the band came out, and it went off!

The Cat Empire, who originated in Melbourne, is made up of a whole bunch of passionate, easy-going, talented, fun-loving guys playing latin-fusion party music. Since 1999, the band have created a popular and strikingly unique sound comprised of latin, rock, ska, reggae and jazz genres beneath Aussie-accented vocals. I’ve been obsessed with their debut 2003 album The Cat Empire since my school days — there’s something about songs like ‘Hello’ and ‘Days Like These‘ which sent my serotonin-levels into overdrive at a young age. And now as a young adult, the album’s mature themes and powerful musical-nuances probably resonate with me even more. I really enjoy their other albums too — which they thankfully spin out every few years — especially 2005’s Two Shoes and more recently the masterpiece that is 2019’s Stolen Diamonds. It’s a shame that this album hasn’t received nearly as much hype as it should, but the enthusiasm of the loyal fans in the Melbourne Zoo crowd almost compensates for this injustice.

The Cat Empire played an hour and a half set where no one in the entire arena could have felt even one smidge of negative emotion. They played a nice mix of songs across pretty diverse albums, giving them the opportunity to showcase their musical talent. The drums and percussion instruments were so well mic’d it almost hurt, the brass and horns made your insides scream with joy, and the distinctive singing voices of charismatic percussion-vocalist Felix Riebl and accomplished singer-scatter-trumpeter Harry James Angus were just so groovy and close to home.

As much as The Cat Empire dedicates themselves to genre-fusion, the most important ingredient in their music is happiness. Their songs ooze with seemingly-effortless good vibes that hit at something very tribal and natural, yet still mentally-stimulating. You dance along and you feel as smooth as liquid. However, the innovation in the musical elements — such as Jamshid “Jumps” Khadiwhala’s quick switching between turntables and a great African gourd rattle — simultaneously makes your brain roar in excitement.

Felix Riebl (vocals) and Ollie McGill (keys/vocals)

In an interlude, Felix — who appeared so completely cool in his leather jacket and devotion to the groove — told us that reconnecting with the inner child and memories of blissful childhood playtime is a concept that the band aim to capture in their music. The result is a sound which probably defines the simple joys of human nature itself. Of course, songs like ‘How to Explain‘ really perpetuate this message through the chant “Music is the language of us all“. But moreover, the way that listeners respond to The Cat Empire’s music — as if their inner souls, and not their bodies, are dancing — is remarkable. The all-ages event really emphasised how this sound is not confined to an age demographic — little kids squealed enthusiastically on their dads’ shoulders and couples danced together during this celebration of human happiness.

Even leaving the venue after the encore (where they played ‘Bulls‘, ‘Hello’, and ‘The Chariot‘), I couldn’t stop grinning like an idiot. Seriously, I can’t take it off. It’s permanent. Live music is genuinely a magic show in its own right — powered by the immediacy of the music, the people, the vibe; it’s so cathartic. But if you can’t manage to see The Cat Empire or anything similar in a live setting, just listen to their music somehow. Stream it, vinyl it, bug your local barista to give you control of the aux. Do it this week! That’s my advice and my gift to you. I’ll make grinning idiots of the lot of us (because why be anything else?)!