Play, Paws, Record

Samuel James and Jim LeJames are bringing Portland’s music scene to new ears — pointy, fuzzy ears.

By Brian Kevin
Photo by Mark Fleming
[B]efore her recent performance at Down East‘s editorial office in Rockport, Portland singer-songwriter Sorcha Cribben-Merrill had played cafes, clubs, bars, and theaters. She’d even played jazz gigs at assisted living centers and kids’ concerts at art museums. But she had never put on a concert in the offices of a magazine before. Also, she had never put on a concert for a cat.

Cribben-Merrill graced us with her talents this winter for an episode of the oddball, yet surprisingly heartfelt online video series Kitty Critic, which just wrapped its first six-episode season. The Kitty Critic concept is simple: A Portland musician of some repute arrives at a fan’s home (or office, in our case) and sits down to perform an intimate, artfully filmed, and occasionally rather stirring concert — all for that fan’s cat.

“Isn’t it weird that nobody has done it yet?” asks Kitty Critic progenitor Samuel James, himself an accomplished touring blues and roots musician and the owner of two cats (White Blacula and Robles). James hatched the Kitty Critic idea while driving to a friend’s wedding in Tennessee last June. It would be the golden intersection of two arenas in which the Internet already excels, he figured: music videos and cat videos. Still driving, he called two friends back in Maine, Jon Reece and Jim LeJames, to get them on board. When he got home, he convinced Coffee By Design to sponsor the project.

A Portland musician of some repute arrives at a fan’s home and sits down to perform an intimate, artfully filmed, and occasionally rather stirring concert — all for that fan’s cat.

At Down East HQ, the three men set up an impressive mobile recording studio: two HD digital cameras, foam core reflectors for lighting, a condenser mic — the works. Photographer Reece handles Kitty Critic‘s videography, which cuts between long takes of the performers and close-up feline reaction shots. LeJames, meanwhile, is the show’s blazer-clad, tongue-in-cheek host, introducing each episode and, afterward, conducting Daily Show-style interviews with each bemused cat owner (James, 36, has known LeJames, 37, since high school, and he calls his laconic friend “the funniest person I’ve ever met”). As Cribben-Merrill tuned her ukulele in the office of Down East design director Mirek Jurek, the concert’s beneficiary — Willow, Jurek’s orange, 4-year-old Maine coon and our January cover cat — sat curled up in Jurek’s wife’s lap, snoozing obliviously.

That obliviousness is a big part of Kitty Critic‘s kooky, subversive genius. The show is in part a commentary on the complex relationship between performers and audiences. James, who’s been playing professionally for almost a decade, recalls one bar gig where most of the patrons sat with their backs facing him, watching a Patriots game on the far side of the room. Kitty Critic asks whether music still retains its power when it’s performed for a hostile or indifferent listener.

“And what could be more indifferent than a cat?” James asks.

Of course, the videos are also good for a laugh, and they showcase Portland’s abundance of musical talent. Episodes have featured soul singer Kenya Hall, songwriter Dana Gross, Nick Poulin of indie-folk act Tall Horse, and James himself, among others. On April 10, all six artists from the first season will perform at Portland’s SPACE Gallery for a wrap party and fundraiser benefitting the Homeless Animal Rescue Team of Maine. Can James envision a day when Kitty Critic exhausts Portland’s talent reserve and has to look elsewhere?

“Not a chance,” says James. “Not in Portland. We’ll run out of cats before we run out of musicians.”

Sorcha Cribben-Merrill performs for Willow, above, in a very special episode of Kitty Critic. Visit to stream more episodes. On Friday, April 10, Cribben-Merrill will play alongside every other performer from Kitty Critic’s first season at Portland’s SPACE Gallery.