Arriving at the Commodore Ballroom in the evening of Good Friday, the atmosphere inside was definitely a humming one. From the second I walked in (early for seating purposes), there was a great energy in the room. From my perch on the mezzanine level, I had a centre stage view. Score one for the reviewer! The lights went down pretty much at 9 pm on the nose. Victoria BC band, Current Swell, sound a bit muted for the first couple of songs, or maybe I’ve ruined my hearing at too many live gigs. The volume eventually settled into ‘comfortably loud’. It’s not often I know more songs by the opening band than the headliner, and I have ‘my’ radio station, Victoria’s 91.3 The Zone to thank for that. For Current Swell’s 12-song set, they played many songs I knew, including Long Time Ago and Keys to the Kingdom. Until now, I had never realised how country this band’s music is. The Commodore crowd was lapping it up. The main floor was awash with nodding or bobbing heads in time with the music. They said that Vancouver was like a second home to them, and I’m sure their fans appreciated this set that was almost an hour long. They may have more than a passing familiarity with country music, but first and foremost, I think they’re a super-chill, good-time band.
The Cat Empire began the first night of their two nights at the Commodore with a bang. Even before the band came on stage, as the house lights went out again at 10:30 pm the room erupted in cheers and whistles to greet the band. The trumpets sounded to start off “Still Young” and the crowd sang along pretty much from the get-go and there was full participation from them for the oh-oh-oh bits. For a sold-out show, the mezzanine was definitely not at capacity – that was because unless you had a cherry spot picked out (or were just upstairs for a meal like the divine-smelling spicy chicken nachos), you WANTED to be in the mess of people jamming out to the beats of this band.
With the first trumpet notes for “Prophets in the Sky” the screams from the audience matched them for volume, and this band does not skimp on their brass section. Ostensibly one trombone player and one, often two, trumpets ringing out (vocalist Harry James Angus providing the second trumpet), they bring out the essential Latin flavours of this band. Their recorded music truly does not do them justice. As a live act, it’s a tour de force of superb musicianship, with vocalist Felix Riebl (what an excellent southern German name) doing double-duty on a triple-set of congas. The high notes of the brass section sends the crowd almost into a frenzy. Speaking of frenzy, I wish I had caught the name of the next song, because combined with the audience going mental for the trumpets, both Riebl and Angus singing when they’re not playing their other instruments, and the instrumental in the middle was borderline insane. Those of you who’ve read previous reviews of mine know that I have very little patience when it comes to self-indulgent noodling to fill some time – for this song, the instrumental break was something else. This was two trumpets, a trombone, a mix/turntablist, drummer, bass guitarist, keyboardist, and Felix on timbales at one point engaging in a bit of a double drum-off with drummer Will Hull-Brown. These guys are on fire and it’s barely 15 minutes into the show!
Riebl is back on the congos for Wild Animals as Angus is featured as the lead vocalist for this one. I do love my percussion (ex-timpani player here) and I enjoy very much the added intensity a second set of percussion can provide, and for this song, they definitely give more of a jungle drum flavour to the song, which is their point. Like a Drum is definitely one of the more Latin sounding songs they do – quite a bit of it isn’t English. With I think a samba rhythm going on, I’m going to guess Brazilian Portuguese. Riebl is on congas for the intro and the brass section again comes out in spades. When the crowd is invited to clap along, it seems like it’s just what they needed – another way to be a part of this show, other than the jumping up and down, which hasn’t abated. The next two songs I was very busy being mesmerised so I can only say In My Pocket was one of them. Riebl was on timbales, drumming the sides of the metal mostly. The na-na-nas of the chorus echo throughout the room, keyboardist Ollie McGill has converted his keyboard to a bit of a Melodica via a blowtube. When the beat goes into double time, I can feel the floor below me vibrating from my perch a level up and Angus pretty much scats his way through the instrumental break, adding another level of percussion with his voice. The next one I really have no idea what it was – Riebl starts out on congas then switches to timbales. The song featured various instrumental features including trombone, turntable, and keys, and Riebl’s auxiliary percussion. It was another tour de force and it was fantastic!
For Steal the Light, there’s not much to say – I’m 8 songs in and I’m running out of superlatives. The crowd is invited to sing along for the oh-ohs, and it’s no wonder they have such an enthusiastic following because their music really lends itself to audience participation. It’s almost a given, really. Two Shoes provides a bit of a mood change towards the mildly subdued and it’s long enough for two songs with instrumental breaks and just the sheer number of verses this song has. But the rhythm just never lets you go, you happily stay within its grip. Sly is just fun – there’s a succession of solos with trumpet, keyboard and drums. I’m struck by the profound sense of respect these musicians have for one another. When people are soloing, others who don’t have a supportive part to play stay on stage, Riebl even has a tendency to sit down to watch or crouch behind the turntables for the focus to truly be on the soloists. A little jazz piano sets the mood for The Wine Song and McGill has a spotlight on him for it. Bassist Ryan Monro switches to doublebass for the second time this evening. Angus encourages the crowd to dance, in circles even, “make new friends” – the way it gets faster in the chorus would do any Greek or Russian dance folk song justice, but just like a person in their cups, they do go off one way, lose their train of thought, and regroup. That’s kind of how this song is structured and the audience is along for the ride without reservation. For Brighter than Gold I have the most abrupt ending of the night to report. I couldn’t see anything amiss, but after an evening of nice big finishes and fanfare and such, it just seemed out of place.
Lyrically, All Night Loud is a great song with which to end a set – “So thank you my dear friends
and that’s goodnight / I’m much obliged” – these guys don’t do much by accident. By the time they’re off the stage amidst a clamour of cheers and whistles of appreciation, they have played and sung full speed ahead for almost 90 minutes. Barely pausing long enough to towel dry off and grab some hydration, they’re back on stage. I barely have time enough to write that if they don’t do Hello or Chariot, I won’t have known many of their songs. Sounding rather Eastern-influenced until the bass guitar and other instruments begin. This song doesn’t have any brass in it until much later in the song, focussing instead on rolling piano, vocals (Angus’s voice seems almost too loud with his gymnastics in range compared to the understated instruments), and percussion – including Angus scatting. Bass guitar solo spells off keyboards then drums. If you haven’t figured it out, the song is The Darkness. Then, at last, Chariot, teased out by a slow trumpet and organ-sounding keyboards, but with the first notes (it’s like the crowd immediately recognises the key), there are screams and much happy dancing. If ever there was a Cat Empire song that could go on for 10 minutes or longer, it’s this one – Riebl introducing all band members individually during the instrumental break notwithstanding. Alas, twas not to be, but those two songs alone made for a 15+ minute encore, so no complaints. None. I leave a happy camper and envy Saturday’s audience of all the sheer music madness they have in store for them just a tiny bit. Enjoy!
Setlist (to the best of my notes)
Prophets in the Sky
— ?? —
Like a Drum
In My Pocket
— ?? —
Steal the Light
The Wine Song
Brighter than Gold
All Night Loud