It’s hard to believe that Cage the Elephant have been booked to play a venue as small as Northcote Social Club. Surely the Kentucky quintet’s furious brand of raw garage-rock could draw a bigger crowd? Until this year, Australian audiences had never been given the opportunity to witness the band’s notoriously boisterous live show, so fans were excited to see their inclusion on 2012’s Big Day Out lineup and accompanying sideshows.
The crowd is small, but looks big inside the tiny venue. Characteristic of Northcote Social Club, the atmosphere is cosy, with low ceilings, dim lights and regal carpeting. It’s like going to a gig at your grandma’s house, only with more beer and sweat, and less sherry and mothballs.
Melbourne’s Loon Lake blend bluesy guitars with infectious 60s pop melodies. Pumping through the tracks from their 2011 debut EP, Not Just Friends, the band successfully encourages the crowd to unhinge their shoes from the carpet and start tapping their toes. Drenched in summery goodness, Loon Lake’s skillful musicianship and simple songs are as refreshing as a cold beer on a 40 degree day. This band has a great Aussie vibe and will undoubtedly be soundtracking many a drunken barbecue sing-along throughout the country this summer.
Cage the Elephant’s lead singer, Matt Shultz, timidly steps towards the microphone, his eyes nervously darting around the room. Immediately, the band erupts into “In One Ear”, with Shultz leaning precariously over the punters in the front row, before abruptly leaping into the crowd. There’s simply not enough space on the stage to contain the sprightly Shultz. Kicking off with a monkey go-go dance,“2024” sees Shultz again diving into the crowd, until he’s dragged back to stage by a roadie whose main job seems to be to prevent the crowd from becoming tangled in the mic lead. Of course, it’s all in fun, with Shultz and the roadie laughing the entire time.
“We had a really great time at Big Day Out, but after only two songs, I can already tell this is going to be a better show,” roars Shultz, introducing us to the first in what will become a series of unconventional and oddly hilarious stage banter. “I’ve been thinking about this for a long time and I really want to fight someone like this, maybe blindfolded,” he laughs, as he closes his eyes and throws some uppercuts into the air.
With his microphone shoved up his sweat-soaked shirt, the vocals of “Tiny Little Robots” are somewhat muffled. It doesn’t matter, though, as Shultz focuses his attention on engaging the crowd. At one point he roughly grabs the hair of a guy in the front row, pressing his forehead against his own as he sings. If you’re not jumping in the moshpit for “Around My Head”, you’re jumping to see over the crowd.
Cage the Elephant is a band that is unquestionably better live than recorded, even though their albums pack a decent punch. At times, Shultz is simultaneously nonchalant and sarcastic, abrasive and untamed. He crouches at the edge of the stage and allows the audience to pat his head like a dog. He can scream loud enough to render a microphone redundant. “I ate a kangaroo. I know that’s nothing to you guys, but that was special for me,” he reminisces. “I heard they go for the throat when they attack, so I wore a scarf to the restaurant.” The crowd giggles as he mimes eating kangaroo meat whilst mocking the kangaroo he’s supposedly devouring.
During “Sell Yourself”, Shultz can’t resist the urge to hurdle back into the crowd. When he returns to the stage it’s with a total lack of grace as he essentially topples from the sea of arms and is forced into an awkward somersault. He seems completely unaffected, however, returning to the song as if he’d barely stepped out of place.
Taking a moment to catch his breath, Shultz once again indulges the crowd with some mad dialogue. “I’m loving every minute of this. After the show, I’m going to go home and run a bubble bath. Then, I’m going to remember every single one of your faces and I’m going to write some poetry.” When rhythm guitarist Brad Shultz implies that Matt’s dynamic demeanour is the product of ecstasy the latter immediately denies it, claiming, “This is au naturale. I’m just a freak like that.”
Concluding with “Shake Me Down”, a feast of gorgeous poeticism that references Shultz’s past drug descent and recovery, the crowd sings triumphantly along to the mesmerizing coda, “even on a cloudy day”. Once again, Shultz bounds into the crowd. Rather than riding across it, he pauses in the middle, climbing to his knees as the audience lifts him to such a height that his shoulders hit the ceiling. He stares around the entire room, locking eyes with as many people as possible, before falling suddenly back into the ocean of arms.
Chanting “one more song, one more song” are we really naïve enough to believe the band would leave without performing their biggest hit? Apparently so. Brad Shultz returns, enthusiastically declaring, “You are all fucking amazing! This might be our favourite show ever!” Swapping the country twang of an acoustic slide guitar for the garage-rock ferocity of an electric, the band slowly ignites the awesome power that is “Ain’t No Rest For the Wicked”, which sees every person in the audience rapturously providing backing vocals. Finally, they end their set with a cover of Pavement’s “False Skorpion”, which sees Shultz’s vocals descend into manic distortion.
Many members of the crowd try to rise atop the fingertips and surf like Shultz. One person successfully leaps onto stage, only to be immediately tackled to the floor by Shultz. He then violently hoists up the eager fan, who barely looks old enough to be permitted entry into the venue, and yanks him by the collar of his shirt into the crowd. Shultz refuses to let go of the kid’s neck until they’re carried back to the stage, where they share a hug and part ways. Shultz returns to the tangled bed of arms, while the kid runs towards the drumkit and is immediately engulfed in a cloud of security guards and band personnel, who promptly escort him from the stage. Meanwhile, Shultz has immersed himself entirely in the crowd, disappearing from sight.
We’re only a month into the year and already we have a gig that might be impossible to top. It’s utterly shambolic and frighteningly exciting; an event never to be forgotten. There’s simply no caging Cage the Elephant.
– Lara Moates