In his solo mode, Felix Riebl shows us a completely different side the performer. At the helm of the Cat Empire, Felix is the energetic frontman, leaping about the stage and leading the party. By contrast, his entire set at the Producers on Wednesday night was delivered from his piano stool. The real point of connection between the two projects, though, is that it’s driven by a love of music – just a slightly different style of music here.

The chance to catch one of Australia’s best performers in an intimate pub gig was a real treat and the material from Riebl’s new album Paper Doors and previous solo effort, Into the Rain, was well suited to this context.

Rosie Riebl (sister of Felix) kicked things off with some contemporary classical piano. It’s not the sort of thing you expect to be hearing at a bar, but it was really worth turning up early for. Her expressive compositions have a filmic quality to them and it was a real pleasure to sit there and soak up the musical beauty.

Gena Rose Bruce followed up with a half hour set of rootsy singer/songwriter material, and was able to fill out the room with just her voice and a guitar. Bruce is a very fine singer and can certainly write a song; her stage presence, however, could develop further, particularly with quiet patches between songs. All up, it was a pleasant support slot suiting the mood of the evening.

Felix and band took the stage in an unassuming manner, launching into an impressive rendition of the title track from the new album. The set drew heavily from this release but also offered up a few numbers from his solo debut. In fact it was the material from Into the Rain that tended to let the band loose with some impressive instrumental sections.

felix-rieblThe ensemble that Riebl is using for this tour is worth the price of entry alone. He even commented during the show that the quick timing of the album tour was due to this particular group’s availability, such was his enthusiasm to have them play these shows. The decision was more than vindicated in the performance; the four musicians joining Felix on stage really feel the music, with a keen sense of dynamics making the compositions really come alive. They made you forget you were listening to that guy from the Cat Empire, with the kind of searching, nuanced material you might expect from Springsteen, Dylan or Knopfler.

Springsteen, in fact featured in the set, with a polished rendition of ‘I’m On Fire’ coming out of Riebl’s own tune ‘Helen’. This was just one of many highlights of the show.

One of the joys of intimate shows like this is the opportunity to hear about the songs and where they came from. For instance, Felix related how ‘Crocodiles’ was inspired by his trip to East Timor and later explained how ‘Out Where You Are’ was recorded with half of the lyrics being devised on the spot. The night was all about the song-crafting.

With a number of duets featured on the new album, Gena Rose Bruce returned to the stage, doing quite an accomplished job of filling the shoes of Martha Wainwright, Katy Steele and Emily Lubitz. Of these tunes, ‘In Your Arms’, a simple love song, was the real standout.

While this was a very much a solo project, Felix did bring out one song from his more famous band towards the end of the night, dedicating ‘No Longer There’ to two young fans he’d met before the show who claimed to like all the Cat Empire songs. It was a moment of great energy that had everyone in the room smiling.

Appropriately, the night closed out reinforcing the strength of the band as an ensemble, with an extended jam at the end of ‘My Shore’. And after taking a bow, Felix headed to the back of the room to meet fans and sign albums. After years in the business he knows that whether it’s a crowd of thousands on the opening night of WOMAD or a intimate pub gig, it’s connecting with people through music that really matters.

Reviewed by Matthew Trainor

Picture by Libby Parker