Cat Empire fits expansive repertoire into tight sound
On those supremely special, all-too-rare occasions when it happens, a genuine, organic musical phenomenon is a beauty to behold. Take the case of the Cat Empire, a young, artistically omnivorous, and thoroughly uncategorizable sextet steeped in ska, salsa, hip-hop, and funk (with nary a guitar in sight) whose albums weren't even released in this country until last week.
But Sunday night, a mere five days after the band's latest disc, "Two Shoes," was given a Stateside issue by the New York independent label Velour, a throng of fans who sold out the Paradise were cheering and singing -- make that shouting -- along to every one of the dozen-plus tunes the Australian outfit performed during an exuberant two-hour set.
The Cat Empire, which began life in Melbourne as a jazz trio in 1999, has extended and deepened its global fan base in a fashion parallel to its creative growth as a band: not just by expanding its musical membership, but by adding elements to its restless, upbeat sound and incorporating them into the fabric of influences until they become ingrained, part of a tightly woven thread.
The Cat Empire has most recently immersed itself in the richly colorful world of Afro-Cuban jazz -- "Two Shoes" was made in Havana at the same studio where the Buena Vista Social Club, among others, recorded its triumphs -- and the group's performance Sunday often conjured the mellow, humid grooves of that music, flecked with brass and flavored with percussion. There was much more in the mix too, from the big-band bounce and swing of the set opener, "Hello," to the carousing, wedding-song sway of " The Wine Song," to the dub-dosed, call-and-response reggae of the encore closer, "The Chariot ."
The pan-genre showstopper " The Car Song," which arrived early on, perhaps perfectly crystallized what the Empire did so well, so effortlessly, and with so much ebullient gusto.
The tune began with versatile-voiced singer-trumpeter Harry J. Angus rapping atop an up-tempo ska beat (though he was billed as the second vocalist behind the affably charming singer-percussionist Felix Riebl , Angus's voice was the stronger of the two). From there, Angus switched over to a vamping falsetto to coincide with Ollie McGill's keyboard solo -- a searching, soulful run on his Rhodes that soon found everybody else for a jazz-fusion jaunt that became more streamlined, more sublime the faster and more forceful it got. The jam morphed, ultimately, into something different altogether: a cooking Stax-style soul workout, with the band blistering and Angus insisting, with the feel-good urgency of Otis Redding at Monterey, that he had to "get the, get the, get the, car to start!" Despite his exhortations, Angus needn't have worried. He got it started, all right.