Leave 'Em Wanting More: The Rock Cats are punker than you can imagine - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart
The Rock Cats guitarist Oz goes in at The Painted Bride | Photo by Bryne Yancey

Every music lover has stories about live shows they’ll never forget. Think about it. Maybe you went to a house show in west Philly that altered your worldview forever, or experienced a riveting performance from a then-unknown band who’ve since blown up, or perhaps you took your now-spouse to a show and held their hand and kissed them for the first time during what is now “your song.” Your memories of not just that show, but that entire day, are likely still quite vivid. You remember what you were wearing, what your date was wearing, what you ate, what the weather was like, the smells, the sounds, all of it is carved onto your brain like crudely drawn initials onto tree bark because these experiences are so rare and so affecting. I had a similar experience Saturday night at Painted Bride Art Center in Old City, where a ragtag group of creatures from diverse backgrounds formed a common bond in the name of music…and treats.

Samantha Martin has been training cats for a decade now out of her Chicago home, and touring with them as The Amazing Acro-Cats since 2009. Cats are, as we all know, wonderful animals and top-notch companions, but few would ever concede that they’re remotely trainable; cats not giving a fuck is basically their entire brand. Cat owners will convince themselves that their cats love them and couldn’t live without them, but the truth is, cats will likely inherit the earth immediately after the extinction of humans and happily dine on our decaying bodies while doing so. Cats don’t care.

The Rock Cats | Photo by Bryne Yancey

Sookie of The Rock Cats plays the chimes at the Painted Bride | Photo by Bryne Yancey

However, Martin, by using 100% positive reinforcement (i.e. no spray bottles) and copious amounts of salmon, tuna and chicken, has bucked conventional wisdom and trained cats to jump through hoops, push miniature shopping carts, engage in grueling bowling matches with chickens and yes, play music instruments. She brought the Acro-Cats to Philadelphia for several shows over a four-day span this weekend, and, at least at the Saturday night show I attended, it was an enthusiastically packed house, full of people of all ages and dispositions: families comprised of exasperated parents and enthusiastic children, millennials attending either as a date and/or as an “ironic” thing to do.  Many others were wearing cat ears, cat shirts, cat dresses and other feline-related garb that made me frankly feel quite underdressed. Nonetheless, this show undoubtedly served as a safe space for “cat people,” a demographic that’s large but also surprisingly underserved when it comes to non-Internet-related live experiences.

The show began with an “announcement” from Garfield, a groundhog in a red-sequined cowboy hat who later in the show, with the training help of Martin, raised an American flag onstage. I’d never felt so patriotic in my life; quite frankly, sporting events should consider replacing the national anthem with a groundhog to keep attendees interested. Shortly after, a group of rats, again with a helping hand from trainers, adorably walked tightropes together. These could be considered the opening acts, as it were, with the Amazing Acro-Cats serving as direct support. The Amazing Acro-Cats engaged in a riveting routine that included Sookie “going shopping” by pushing the world’s tiniest shopping cart across the stage (with the help of the crowd chanting “Sookie, go shopping!”); Alley, the cat named for where she was found and rescued, displaying her Guinness world record jumping prowess by breathtakingly leaping from one elevated platform to another; Tuna, the unquestioned star of the show who has more twitter followers than you, is great at high-fives, can ring a bell with his paw and even works the light-up applause sign for the majority of the show. These are cats after all, however, and at many points the animals either took an extended amount of time to do their trick or simply chose, as cats are wont to do, not to do anything. A few cats, once released from their carriers, wandered offstage either to the back or into the crowd—at one point one of the cats was near my feet in the row in front of me, just out of reach. My brush with fame.

The real headliner of the show were The Rock Cats, a seven-piece band made up of five cats—Tuna on cowbell, Sookie on chimes, Dakota on drums, Oz on acoustic guitar and Nue on keyboards—with Cluck Norris the chicken crashing a cymbal and Garfield the groundhog as an ancillary player banging a gong. Their music is difficult to describe and must be heard to be believed. The Rock Cats don’t so much play songs; their instrumentation is primarily freeform movements, 100% improvised, like jazz on acid. Oz is particularly animated, strumming with vigor on his guitar like a cat possessed. Dakota had difficulty keeping time with him, or even hitting both of her drums at the same time, which made for an even stranger musical experience; the songs didn’t necessarily feel empty with less percussion, but one had to wonder what they’d sound like with a stronger player. Every great musician has the occasional off night. Nue’s keyboards were positively haunting and gothic, with deep, dark, perplexing tones harkening back to the best post-punk of the 1980s. If Nue could speak, she would probably tell everyone she’s an avid Joy Division fan. Sookie couldn’t quite hit the chimes in the way they’re supposed to be hit, but her effort was apparent and, like a musician missing a note live, it was barely noticeable. Tuna was the most consistent player of the Rock Cats, pawing down on her cowbell with remarkable timing that would’ve made The Bruce Dickinson’s fever subside faster than any prescription-strength medication. The band performed for about 10 minutes, because like any good punk show, The Rock Cats wanted to get in, say their thing, and get the hell out while leaving the crowd wanting more. And want more we did.

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