“I literally don’t know who’s playing this (on the next song),” said Don DiLego, holding up an acoustic guitar, at the roots-rock band Fantastic Cat’s Dec. 11 concert at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair.
It was easy to see why he was confused. Members of the band — featuring established singer-songwriters DiLego, Mike Montali (of Hollis Brown), Anthony D’Amato and Brian Dunne — often changed instruments between songs, moving around the stage to perform on acoustic and electric guitars, bass, drums, percussion, harmonica and mandolin. With some exceptions, everybody pretty much played everything, and Michael Hesslein supplemented the core quartet all evening on keyboards.
The four also took took turns singing lead, with one or more members chiming in on backing vocals; occasionally, as on “Fiona” (see video below) and a moving show-closing version of the Warren Zevon ballad “Keep Me in Your Heart,” different members handled different verses.
“Democracy in rock bands, with very few exceptions, is often a ticking time bomb,” wrote Bruce Springsteen in his 2016 autobiography “Born to Run,” explaining why he runs the E Street Band as a benevolent dictatorship. And that’s a pretty widely held view, in rock circles.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to the rule. I don’t know what it’s like for them behind the scenes, but Fantastic Cat certainly seems as democratic as they come.
They formed in 2019 and have not yet released an album, though they have put out several singles. Of course, it’s rare for a band to headline a venue such as the Outpost in the Burbs before putting out an album, but that is one of the benefits of having all the members of a group starting off with a following of their own.
The show was billed as a Holiday Extravaganza, and holiday-season songs were sprinkled throughout it: covers of Chuck Berry’s “Run Rudolph Run,” John Lennon’s “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” and Tom Petty’s “Christmas All Over Again” in addition to the band’s own “New Year’s Day,” released as a single last week. Elsewhere, band members performed songs from their own catalogs and also new, unrecorded material that may be under consideration for the debut Fantastic Cat album, whenever it may come out.
Everyone brought something distinctive to the mix: Montali, for instance, with his distinctively high and piercing voice, and Dunne with his dynamic electric guitar playing. D’Amato sang mostly in a deep, soulful way, but delivered his “Armageddon” in an edgier, Dylanesque manner.
It’s hard not to think of The Band, because of both the earthiness and the variety of Fantastic Cat’s music — the way different members add different textures, depending on who is singing and who is playing which instrument.
Part of the Fantastic Cat live package also seems to involve a fair amount of good-natured ribbing.
“Now it’s time for some real talent,” said Montali before singing his first song of the evening.
Later, Dunne pronounced himself “the brains of the operation,” and DiLego bragged about giving vocal lessons to everyone in the band.
These guys seem too smart, though, to tolerate any real diva-like behavior. They came off, at Outpost in the Burbs, as four unguarded friends, enjoying themselves, and each other, immensely.
“It’s kind of like reconnecting with the fun part of things,” D’Amato told me, of the project, in a prior interview. He and his bandmates certainly seemed to be doing just that, in Montclair.
Fantastic Cat will perform at the Hollis Brown & Friends show, also featuring Darryl “DMC” McDaniels of Run-DMC, at the Mercury Lounge in New York, Dec. 30. Visit mercuryeastpresents.com.
For more on the band, visit fantasticcatband.com.
We need your help!
CONTRIBUTE TO NJARTS.NET
Since launching in September 2014, NJArts.net, a 501(c)(3) organization, has become one of the most important media outlets for the Garden State arts scene. And it has always offered its content without a subscription fee, or a paywall. Its continued existence depends on support from members of that scene, and the state’s arts lovers. Please consider making a contribution of $20, or any other amount, to NJArts.net via PayPal, or by sending a check made out to NJArts.net to 11 Skytop Terrace, Montclair, NJ 07043.