Louis Cato, TV late night bandleader, offers 'Reflections,' a new album of 'laid bare, honest' songs

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Louis Cato poses for a portrait on Friday, June 16, 2023, in New York. Cato's second album, Reflections, is out Aug. 11. (Photo by Matt Licari/Invision/AP)

NEW YORK – Musician and producer Jack DeBoe recalls the time many years ago when he fully grasped the sheer musical ability of his new friend, Louis Cato.

DeBoe and Cato were playing a gig in Boston when DeBoe got up from his drum kit for a break. Cato, playing bass, soon sat down at the drums, continued to play the bass with his left hand, put a drumstick in his right hand to hit the cymbals and drums and used his feet to play the kick and the high hat. Then he sang a song.

He wasn't showing off. He was just expressing himself.

“He always puts the music first and not any sort of virtuosic performance or demonstration,” says DeBoe. “It’s almost like you’re not going to look at an octopus and say, ‘Hey, you’re showing off!' No, that’s an octopus. They’ve got eight arms. You can’t be mad at them for that.”

Cato's remarkable musical gifts are on show this summer with his second album, “Reflections,” which turned into a way to express himself while his regular day gig as bandleader of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” is quiet because of the Hollywood strike.

As you might expect, the album is a labor of love. All but one song is written by Cato and on one tune alone, he's credited with acoustic guitar, bass, drums, tambourine, seed shaker, concert bass drum, lead vocals and background vocals.

“I’m kind of a bit of a do-it myself kind of personality,” Cato says. “I’m a curious person and the puzzle of soundscape just invites all of my curiosity.”

The new album is quite different from his 2017 debut, “Starting Now,” in which he showcased “everything I could possibly do.” With “Reflections,” he let go of the bells and whistles. “What is the most laid bare, honest version of this song that I wrote?” was the approach.

The album veers from folk to funk with soul and Latin influences. “Another Day” features a duet with Elizabeth Ziman of Elizabeth & The Catapult, while ”Cutie Baby" is a sweet lullaby. It comes out Friday.

“He’s grown quite a bit and lived more of his life, gathered more experiences and has more of a story that he wants to share with the world,” says DeBoe, who helped produce both albums.

The eight tracks on “Reflections” include one cover, “Miss You” by The Rolling Stones, a nod to the weekly covers Cato releases on his social media. He uses it to keep his musical arranger muscles strong, wondering, for instance, how a Beatles song might sound if recorded in Motown.

“I’m really fascinated by this concept that a really well-written song can live in a lot of genres and styles,” he says. “It was important for me to have a cover on the record, just one where I sort of take that approach.”

It might seem as if Cato can play anything — a musical octopus — but he’s quick to point out there are some instruments that baffle him, like when he tried out his sister’s oboe as a kid.

“My attention span doesn’t always match my curiosity,” he says, laughing. “The gateway to entry just to not sound like a duck is about a year. And I didn’t have that kind of attention span to be perfectly honest.”

Cato has been part of Colbert’s “Late Show” from the start. Original bandleader Jon Batiste called him up to ask if he’d help craft the theme song even before the show went on the air. He was then asked to join the show’s band and took over from Batiste last year, having had what he calls a “front-row seat” to how to do it well.

“I take it as my job to maintain engagement with the audience,” he says. “We keep the energy in the room up.” He's even discussed the role with David Letterman's bandleader, Paul Shaffer.

It’s a job that requires Cato to think fast on his feet. Colbert often asks his band leader questions, like “What do you do to stay healthy, Louis?” or “What are you giving up for Lent?” Their mutual respect is evident: “I started working for a boss and met a friend along the way,” says Cato.

One obvious benefit to such a late night perch is the musical guest who sits in with the band, like St. Vincent or Joe Walsh. James Taylor is a frequent visitor, someone Cato calls “a titanic, creative, superpower.”

Cato's love of music was shown early, when his mother brought home a drum set when he was 2. He later was given an acoustic guitar and when the strings burst, he learned to play bass on it.

He studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston but left to become a gigging musician. He worked with John Legend, Talib Kweli, A Tribe Called Quest, Jack White and toured with Bobby McFerrin. He became a musical Swiss Army knife, someone who was hired instead of five or six musicians.

Cato must balance a lot as bandleader, from picking something for the guest horn players to finding a chunk of a well-known funk song because many in the audience are tourists. His go-tos are often Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Led Zeppelin and, in a nod to his predecessor, the sounds of New Orleans.

On “The Late Show,” the irony is that millions of viewers rarely get to hear the band perform a whole song through. Usually, they take viewers in and out of commercials, often with a big finish before a new guest is unveiled.

“When the cameras are not on, it sort of feels like you’ve just transitioned from like ‘Lights, camera, action!’ into a speakeasy,” he says. “It’s a whole concert in between commercial breaks and it’s just for us.”


Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits