A Cat Power record is reminiscent of a Nick Drake record: no matter how bright the sun is shining outside, Chan Marshall’s music has the ability to transform physical matter. Her sound aesthetic adds a weight to any room, a sort of shifting intimate discomfort.
America has a long history of falling in love with the work of depressed artists. Novelists, painters, and musicians have long wrapped death and decay around their female protagonists, bringing about trapped circumstances and untimely ends. The sad female. We count on her to wake us up, to punch us in the stomach so hard that we have to take a quick deep breath. And like so many characters and artists who came before her, Chan Marshall is an artist for low, low people on sad, sad walks. And we can’t take our eyes off of her.
Reports of Marshall’s paralyzing stage fright have been greatly exaggerated, mutated and twisted by fans and press. But it adds to the mythology forming the act known as Cat Power. She seems to address all of this in “I Don’t Blame You”, the opening track on her latest release, You Are Free:
Last time I saw you/
You were on stage/
Your hair was wild/
Your eyes were bright and you were in a rage/
You were swinging your guitar around/
Cause they wanted to hear that sound/
But you didn’t want to play/
And I don’t blame you
I don’t blame you/
I don’t blame you
Some critics have posited that she’s singing about Kurt Cobain, but Marshall has publicly repudiated that wild stab. It sounds more like a spooky internal meditation, a conversation with herself about being on stage, about the process of going public with her art.
It’s been five long years since Marshall released new, original material. 1998’s spare and bluesy Moon Pix reached more listeners, but it also pegged Marshall as a chronic downer with little or no emotional range. Marshall’s label (Matador Records) says of the new record: “This is not easy listening.” And that’s pretty accurate. So the question on the group-mind of tonight’s San Francisco’s audience is, how will all of this translate live?
Everyone’s read the press on the Chan Marshall Experience, the “anti-concert.” The New York Times is on record describing her show as an “inversion of standard rock performance ethics.” Maybe it’s like a car crash—you don’t want to look, you have to look. Will tonight be disastrous? The collective anxiety seems to be generating attention for Marshall—she’s on the cover of the San Francisco Bay Guardian; she’s a sold-out headliner at Noise Pop, one of the country’s flagship indie-rock festivals. She’s a star (to prove it, she’s even got celebrities on the new record: Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl).
Live, the four-piece band is missing the dexterity of the studio sound. Most of the set remains locked into the same slow thick tempo; moments that are brilliant on the album are reduced to a homogenous blur live. The addition of three backing musicians (Will Fratesi on drums, Coleman Lewis on guitar, and Margaret White on violin, bass, keyboards) is cause for wide-open expectant eyes in the audience. On the album, a few tracks actually Rock. (Check out “Free” and “He War”.). But where You Are Free shows an attention to production detail on each song, with distinct layers of careful vocal overdubs and subtle percussive and instrumental adventuring, the live mix is absent of that same intention. The overall sound is less subtle and nuanced; the band’s not performing as a unit.
And then there’s Marshall’s distracting stage presence. Her first concern of the night is visual. “Turn those bright spotlights down,” she instructs the stage crew as the already dim red light is taken down to shadows. “Turn my vocals down.” Her hair is in her face, she doesn’t acknowledge the crowd’s infatuated shouts (“What would the community think?” one person shouts, in reference to the 1996 album. “I’m in love with you,” screams another.) There’s little (or no) interaction with her band mates—each musician seems to be performing in isolation. And you can hear it in the music.
The second song endures an interruption in the middle of the second verse. Marshall scolds, “Is there reverb on this guitar? Where’s the reverb?” The audience shifts its feet uncomfortably—but the weirdness pretty much ends here. For the rest of the set Marshall is mostly mute. And still, she is adored. The crowd stands quietly, smashed together, watching her. We may never be this close to each other again, but for a moment we’re here, trapped in a mob of our own choosing, clamoring to hear this reluctant performer, hoping to be close, to each other and to her, as she pushes us away, and we fall in love anyhow.