Much has been made about Cat Power’s Chan Marshall as a live performer in the same way that much was made about Michael Jordan as a baseball player: people love to talk about how bad they are, the idea being that Jordan should stick to the basketball court, and Marshall to the recording studio. She has been dogged by rumors of debilitating stage fright, with stories of breaking down on stage and curling into a fetal ball after a few songs, and has been criticized for hiding behind a mop of hair that seems designed to hide her face from the world. I happen to find Chan Marshall an extraordinary and captivating performer, but her concert at Irving Plaza on Tuesday night made it clear that I’m in the minority. The 1,000 person venue was sold out, but by the end of her set at least three-quarters of the crowd had left. It’s hard to defend a performer when three out of four people who think they like her enough to spend $15 are so frustrated that they don’t even stay to hear the whole show.
Marshall and her three bandmates, Will Fratesi on drums, Coleman Lewis on guitar and bass, and Margaret White on violin, bass, and keyboards, took the half-lit stage quietly. Marshall, oddly but characteristically, sat not in the middle, but all the way to the side, with so little light on her that all you could make out was a silhouette. Their first song was “Babydoll”, from Cat Power’s latest recording, You Are Free. This is one of the creepiest songs Marshall has written, with a whispered refrain of “Don’t you want to be free?” and every note of the music making it clear that that’s not an option. Unfortunately, Irving Plaza’s much vaunted sound system was unable to handle the torrent of ear-splittingly loud noise unleashed by the band (note: sarcasm), and the bass was distorting a bit. As the song ended, Marshall changed her guitar riff a bit and kept right on going, into a song off of M. Ward’s Transfigurations of Vincent, which will be released in a few weeks. Ward’s cheekiness as a songwriter, which has served him well, was completely nullified by Marshall, who took the slightly goofy refrain of “Sing a sad, sing a sad, sing a sad sad song,” and made it into her manifesto. The mood was ruined by an over-enthusiastic fan, who was so thrilled to recognize the song that he thought it would be a good idea to jump up and down yelling “M. Ward! M. Ward!” over and over again.
Next was “I Don’t Blame You”, the first song off of You Are Free, performed there on solo piano and voice, but transformed here into a country-tinged ballad, with completely different chords and a much-altered melody. Marshall loves to do this, both with her own songs and with covers, treating a song as if the lyrics are all that’s important, and even the overall mood is negotiable, often with remarkable effect. One of the great pleasures of the album version of “I Don’t Blame You” is hearing Marshall’s vocal overdubs. To say that her voice blends well with itself is meaningless, but something magic happens when you hear a choir of Cat Powers. One of the distinctive features of Marshall’s singing is her sense of pitch: she routinely hits notes that are “out of tune” by normal standards, but there is never any question that she has done so consciously, and in full control. This opens up an entirely unexpected range of melodic nuance, and the effect is reinforced when she overdubs herself. Live, of course, this is not possible, and somehow the regrettable decision was made to have Margaret White sing backup vocals instead. This is rather like giving Golem a staff and asking him to fill in for Gandalf, and the results were not pretty. It was the premiere of a new band, Strangled Chicken Power.
Things only got worse on the next song, “Good Woman”, also from You Are Free. Here, the increasingly unfortunate Ms. White attempted not only to sing Marshall’s backup vocals, but also to fill in for the small chorus of children on the album, while playing the violin part recorded by the great Warren Ellis of Dirty Three. All three impersonations met with an equal lack of success, and I was worried that she might attempt to fill in for Eddie Vedder as well. Add a wheelchair bound German scientist and a clueless French inspector and it’s beginning to sound like a job for Peter Sellers. White’s ineptitude leads to a puzzling question: why did Marshall, who has enough clout that both Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl appear on her latest album, and whose last backing band consisted of Jim White and Mick Turner of Dirty Three, hire such a mediocre band for this tour? While I have no reasonable answer to this question, I can report that, with the exception of White’s vocals, the band was never distractingly bad, and it takes a serious distraction (diagnosis of cancer, a blow job, Margaret White singing) to detract from the pleasure of hearing Chan Marshall’s voice.
Before I had heard Cat Power perform, I had assumed that she would not be a great live performer, not because of the tales of stage fright, but because her vocals are so delicate, so introspective, and so carefully controlled on recording that it seemed unlikely that she would be able to recreate it live. It was a real surprise to find that voice perfectly intact, every bit as beautiful as it is on record. For the past few years Marshall has been touring solo, and while this band is certainly not the best she has ever assembled, it still served as a reminder to hear how good she can sound with a drumbeat behind her. The band sounded best on some of her older songs, like the excellent “Rockets”, and even on a version of her classic Moon Pix song “American Flag”. Here, the band built up a thick but not particularly obtrusive wall of sound, a bed of electric sound for Marshall to sing over. Imagine the Velvet Underground with Nico, and then imagine if Nico could sing.
Still, it is solo that Marshall really shines as a performer, and it is when she’s on stage alone that the full extent of her eccentricity is revealed. Once the rest of the band left the stage, it took a full ten minutes before she got through a song. First she hit a few random notes on the piano. Then she muttered something into the microphone. Then she asked for some more reverb. The Brazilian girl sitting next to me thought she had asked for some reefer, and prepared to go up to the stage to give her a joint. When I explained what Marshall had meant, she said “Why doesn’t she sing some of her more uplifting songs? She has really uplifting songs, doesn’t she?” Sorry babe, wrong show. You must be thinking of Meatloaf. What followed for the next 45 minutes was the classic Cat Power concert experience: Marshall singing short snippets of covers before deciding that she either didn’t remember the lyrics, or didn’t want to sing that song, crowd requests often turning into brilliantly strange impromptu versions of songs, and an ever dwindling audience. I found every second of it captivating. The Motown classic “Can I Get A Witness” sounded like a ghost singing along with a black church service. A song that combined phrases of the Everly Brothers “(All I Have To Do Is) Dream”, “Blue Moon”, and Otis Redding’s “Try A Little Tenderness” was enough to convince me that all is well in the world.
The crowd seemed pleased when Marshall started the haunting piano line for “Names”, a song off You Are Free. It is certainly an extraordinary piece, and one of Marshall’s best melodies, but the lyrics are her first ever foray into bad taste. Each verse chronicles the misfortunes of a child, each more depressing than the last, but the agony is more than a little heavy-handed. Belle and Sebastian tried the same idea, much more effectively, on “If You’re Feeling Sinister” by injecting the proceedings with a little humor. Marshall’s band then rejoined her for a surprisingly energetic version of the White Stripes “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”, and a chilling performance of her own “Cross Bones Style”. As Marshall left the stage after nearly two and a half hours of performance, I had to question again the idea that she hates performing so much. If that were the case, would she really choose to play for that long? Maybe she has as much fun on stage as I do in the audience.