Given her remarkably reliable studio output, it’s surprising that Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) is known to be so hit or miss live. Having successfully built a career around her breathy, elegant voice, one would expect Marshall to exude confidence on stage.
But, Marshall’s reputation precedes her. Like the Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe, people seem to expect her to put on a show (and not of the musical variety). And it’s true, Marshall often brings an intense, nervous paranoia to the stage, one which causes her to abort more songs than she finishes and to issue constant apologies. The reasons for such stops-and-starts? She thinks her piano or guitar is out of tune. She just wants to stop the song. She gets bored. Whatever. The bottom line is that, on such an “off” night she often pisses off more people than she wins over.
In hopes that this was all exaggeration, I made an attempt to clear all expectations. And it paid off. This was no train wreck of a live show. This time around, Marshall was on.
Her voice issued perfect notes and she rarely stopped playing, except to switch from piano to guitar. She fluidly moved from song to song, each lost in her dreamy, smoky vocals.
As the show went on I wished more and more that she was performing with a band. Performed by Marshall alone, on just piano and guitar, the sparse arrangements disguised even her best known songs. It’s a minor concern, though, and is certainly not a complaint.
Plus, it’s not Marshall’s fault in the least if things were sometimes too light to hear. I blame the talkers, and especially the employees and patrons who don’t know how to quietly place an empty bottle in a bin full of other bottles. Listening to her records, you can turn up the volumes and push the earphones more firmly into your ears. Her songs are as personal and intimate for the devoted listener as they are for Marshall. In a club full of brash, chatty people more interested in a night out than a quiet, contemplative performance, it’s easy to understand why Marshall can often become petulant and difficult. And it makes you question the expectation that we have of performers giving their all to a song while their audience is only half paying attention and half paying the bartender.
The last song fizzled out into a piano meltdown. Marshall said, “Blah, blah, blah,” into the mic, and then left the stage. Perhaps the most hilarious exit I’ve ever seen. Everyone cheered for an encore. She never came back.
Marshall has a strange, enigmatic presence that’s absolutely loveable. Perhaps I’d feel differently if I had been disappointed, if she had thrown a tantrum or flaked out somehow. But she didn’t flake. Not even close. No, the show reaffirmed her status as one of the most unique performers out there today. Musically she might be shying away from comparisons to Will Oldham, but her strange presence on stage doesn’t seem to be changing. Not a bit.
For those who have been disappointed in the past, hopefully the strength of this performance (and others on the tour, as I’ve read) mark a change in Marshall’s antics. Hopefully she has learned to overcome her paranoia but there have been shows on this tour which have garnered the same old disappointed reviews, so who knows? All I know is that this particular night was magical.
Cat Power’s new album, The Greatest, will be released at the end of January. It was recorded here in Memphis, with Memphis musicians, at the historical Ardent Studios (think Big Star, R.E.M., Led Zeppelin to Sam & Dave, Booker T. & the M.G.‘s, and Isaac Hayes). I’m more excited now, than ever.