29 Jan 2013: Terminal 5 New York
Under veil of changing lights and a restriction on professional photography, Cat Power defied her hit-or-miss reputation at Terminal 5. She walked on stage to the slow strumming of a lone electric guitar and said to the city that made her career, “Love you guys.”
“Once I wanted to be the greatest,” she opened, “No wind or waterfall could stop me.”
She continued with the title track from her acclaimed album, The Greatest, a subtle reference to the last year of illness and debt that stalled her touring, “And then came the rush of the flood / The stars at night turned you to dust”.
Low lighting and no zoom lenses trained on her face, and little dialogue let Power (née Chan Marshall) focus on her tearduct-trigger vocals, averting the anxiety and sometimes surly stage presence for which she’s known. Even the bad-girl blonde Mohawk she’s been sporting in the last year was combed down straight.
Over an hour-and-a half set, she spanned the genres of her twenty-year songwriting career, with a focus on the electropop of her comeback album, Sun. The more upbeat, danceable songs, co-produced with French DJ, Philippe Zdar (known for his work with the band Phoenix) have given her the highest Billboard position of her career at #10. But the Dylan-goes-electric moment—a new pattern of mainstream collaborations and marketing - was a risk for a show with long-time New York fans, who know her raw piano and guitar-based slow-burners.
She pushed through some rasps and pitch problems early on, while shaking off the pressure of the pivotal show. By the middle of the second song, symbolism-rich firestarter, “Cherokee”, she landed her haunting alto pitch-perfect, but deep in the layers. Moving clouds and images of Native American reservations flashed behind her while she sang, “Marry me, marry me to the sky / Bury me, marry me to the sky.”
Two sets of live drums, electronic and acoustic, carried most of the show - a departure from her brooding, stripped-down performances. When the programmed synth track of “Manhattan” began, she brought her voice more up-front, adding some shy, but slinky lead-singer moves. She let literal howls and whoops fly, following the lyrics, “In Harlem, in a dark back room / Dancing to a different tune / Howling at me, howling at you”.
Though she plays all the instruments on her albums, she focused on the subtle quivers and loud-quiet delivery of her vocals, only playing guitar on a couple songs. Her more upbeat, layered tracks from “Sun” were directed through two microphones - one in real-time, one on delay for an instant, otherworldly backing track.
She did not disappoint her fan base, reprising several soul-based torch songs that show her voice at its most evocative, vulnerable, and powerful, landing more in the upper ranges of her voice than on the earth-dwelling “Sun”. While she stood on a mostly dark stage, stepping in and out of a single red spotlight, the audience was almost silent, until the Spanish operatic trill of “Angelitos Negros” brought her a standing-ovation-level cheer.
Power was visibly moved by her own lyrics, showing both downfall and triumph in her body language and vocals, sometimes velvet smooth, other times cracking and wispy. She pumped her fist along with the pulses of the spotlight “3, 6, 9 you drink wine / Monkey on your back and you feel fine” - a probable reference to her struggles with alcoholism - and pointed her #1 finger in the air as she sang, “You want to live and not be forgotten”.
Winding down, Power turned to her political rock anthems, ironically the most commercial part of the show. Aggressive vocals and electric guitar screamed through her packaged indictments of bourgeois entitlement. Psychedelic lava lamp projections and “Occupower” flashed during her lyrics, “When I was a teen, I had incredible dreams / 99% y’all, it’s in the wall y’all”.
Closing with the piano-pop single “Ruin” about the misfortunes of other cultures around the world versus the pedestrian complaints of our comfortable lives, Power was at the height of her energy, moving across the stage and bending down to the audience. She tossed out t-shirts while her new brand symbol flashed on the screen: lowercase “c” and “p” smashed together mimicking the “DM” of legendary electro band Depeche Mode.
Never mind the circumstance, Cat Power was on. Her performance to three packed levels at Terminal 5 was as much a success as she could have hoped and at the right moment. She created a bond with the audience solely through her performance, something she often doesn’t accomplish in her live shows. Whistles followed every smile she could not contain, as she realized she’d pulled off a technically sound, career-spanning show in New York.
Though she did not come back for an encore, Power bowed low and waved an extended goodbye, glassy eyes all around.
// Notes from the Road
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