I call it changing faces (Chan Marshall portrait by Grant Siedlecki)
June 10, 2006
The last time I saw Cat Power live was about four years ago in Baltimore, and I left after half an hour. I don’t want to make too big a thing out of this, but Cat Power shows are uncomfortable. Chan Marshall is an amazing singer and a frequently great songwriter, but I always got the sense that she was struggling against her own strengths, drowning her songs in reverb and skeletal water-torture arrangements, sending herself out onstage to die a long and slow death. There’s been plenty made of her constant visible discomfort in front of people, but it’s always been true: she mumbles, abandons songs halfway through, apologizes constantly, hides behind her hair. And she’s been doing it for years, often with no other musicians onstage, so she’s been all alone in getting through every one of these apparently harrowing experiences. I’ve never seen her run crying out of a club or anything, but I certainly believe the reports that she’s done it. And so I’ve always had a nagging suspicion that a pretty huge portion of the crowd has been made up of vampires who get off on watching someone so obviously uncomfortable try and fail to get through an entire show, sort of like people who show up at Nascar races just to see crashes. And there’s always been a little piece of me that’s said that she’s doing it on purpose, playing up certain parts of her personality to cater to this demographic, secure in the knowledge that there’s a lucrative market for damaged, fragile women. And plus her songs are really slow and quiet, so it’s always been a challenge to stand up in a crowded club for an hour and a half and listen to someone flounder through this stuff, and so her shows can often be simultaneously boring and excruciating. I walked out of that Baltimore show resolving that I’d never waste another night on a Cat Power show.
And then she made an album with a bunch of old-school Southern-soul session musicians, her big Dusty in Memphis move. I like The Greatest more as an idea than as an album; for every dusky slow-burn makeout jam like “Could We” or “Living Proof,” there’s a treacly overproduced waiting-room song like “Islands” or the title song. But I really love the idea; I figured that if these grizzled veterans could get Marshall to come out of her shell and put on a show, then maybe one of the most gifted singers of her generation could make a big jump toward actualizing her potential. When Matador announced that she’d be touring with something called the Memphis Rhythm Band, I had a mental image of this group of old guys playing taskmaster, snapping at Marshall whenever she fell into her woe-is-me routine and basically forcing her to be as good as she could. And then she went and cancelled the whole tour; it seemed like it wasn’t meant to be and she’d be back to her old hermetic ways soon enough.
But the tour was rescheduled, and Saturday night’s show was be a better Cat Power show than I’d ever imagined could possibly take place; my fault. It certainly helped that the show was at Town Hall, a seated venue; Cat Power isn’t exactly circle-pit material. But that’s not what made the show great. It turned out that my band-as-drill-sergeant image couldn’t have been more off. Marshall had a huge thirteen-piece band with her, grand piano and strings and horns and backup singers, but they weren’t cracking the whip at her. The band came out before Marshall, and they played a couple of slow instrumental numbers that sounded suspiciously like songs from The Greatest; it seemed like they were in a holding pattern, waiting for a Marshall who wasn’t sure she wanted to come out and play this show. But that impression melted away a few minutes later when Marshall came out flashing a big smile and doing a chicken-dance, looking better than I’ve ever seen her (people kept wolf-whistling throughout the show, which was really irritating). When she stepped to the mic, her voice came out thick and smoky and raspy, just magnificent, like she’d been holding back onstage for years and was only just learning how good she was; if anything, she’s sounding more polished onstage than she does on record. She’s not exactly a seasoned, confident performer; she was fidgety and awkward and nervous. But she finally seemed to be enjoying herself up there: fumbling through Riverdance toe-steps and turning paralyzing anxiety into physical comedy. She left the stage at one point before coming back and saying, “I just went to see if I had any text messages. I mean, he said he was going to be here.” It used to be that when she’d forget the words to a song, she’d stop dead in the middle and apologize continually. It only happened once on Saturday, and she just sang “something something” and then kept going. Just after Marshall pulled out an absolutely perfect rendition of “Where Is My Love,” the band left the stage, and she came back dressed in a short white dress with her hair pulled back: a costume change at a damn Cat Power show; wonders never cease. Without the rest of the band, she did about half an hour by herself and didn’t miss a step, playing stark and mesmerizing covers of “House of the Rising Sun” and “Hit the Road Jack” and the Everly Brothers’ “Dream,” alternating between piano and a big hollowbody rockabilly guitar, everything so quiet that you could hear cell phones ringing in the audience. After the band came back for a few more songs, she ended it with another solo song, “I Don’t Blame You,” maybe the saddest song she’s written. It didn’t sound quite so sad anymore.
Over the course of the show, she made a couple of jokes about being sober. It would be cheap and easy to call that sobriety the source of her newfound ease and happiness, but I’m not convinced that it would be wrong. For years now, Chan Marshall has been going onstage and soldiering through despite visibly obvious discomfort, and the shows have often been pretty terrible as a result. She’s not exactly Frank Sinatra now, but the lingering tension from the old shows makes the new triumph that much more powerful. The Memphis Rhythm Band can do a humid vamp as well as just about any band I’ve seen, but they have a way of straying into Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra territory, and they’d be dead boring behind Carly Simon or whoever. But when they’re there to bolster Marshall’s burgeoning self-reliance, their professionalism makes for a great foil. I hope I don’t sound condescending when I say that she’s turned a corner, and it’s moving to see her finally becoming a great performer. I went to see a concert and a redemption story broke out.