Seen some unbelievable things, too. Just not last night.
Cat Power + Appaloosa
February 6, 2008
Redemption stories are supposed to have endings. That’s why you don’t see Cutty much anymore on The Wire: he went through his thing, he came out the other side, and now his book is mostly closed. But things don’t work that way in real life; people keep going even after their stories should be done. For years, Chan Marshall was some sort of fetishistic cautionary tale: the stage-fright basket-case who people seemed to go see just so they could watch her break down. The first time I saw Cat Power (Maxwell’s, 1999-ish), she looked like a ghost: hidden behind Cousin It hair, melting into the darkness at the back of the stage, barely able to stammer more than a couple of words in between her tentative but luminous songs. Somewhere down the line, though, she sobered up and conquered some of her issues, and she came out looking like a completely different person. Two years ago, she recorded The Greatest, her Dusty in Memphis move, and even if it wasn’t an amazing record it was still an admirable personal leap, an attempt to draw personal strength by making music that sounded like the music she’d grown up on. And the 2006 Town Hall show I saw was something close to transcendent: a big band of seasoned session-musician pros helping Marshall find her inner entertainer and that entertainer triumphantly finding her voice. So there’s your redemption story. But Chan Marshall still exists and makes music, and even coming off of a big win like that Greatest tour, she’s not always going to come up looking great. She sure didn’t look great at Terminal 5 last night.
That’s not entirely her fault. Terminal 5 is just about the worst place in the world for a Cat Power show. It’s way out in the western Midtown hinterlands, across from a Lexus dealership and under a stankass bridge, a long walk from any subway. But it’s a converted dance club, and it looks pretty amazing inside: multiple balconies, chandeliers, neon lights, couches everywhere. It’s the sort of place where a hitman would kill someone at the beginning of a B-grade 90s action movie like The Replacement Killers or something, and I wish I’d been there when it was an actual dance club. When I walked in, opening guy/girl duo Appaloosa was playing dozy French trip-hop so wispy that it barely existed. One flannel-shirt guy hunched over a laptop, and one girl in daisy dukes breathily sung at the floor; the stage presence on display was negative. Appallosa’s housier St. Etienne bits made me want to pay attention, at least for a moment, but I spent most of their set wishing my new phone had Tetris on it. After Appaloosa left the stage, Cat Power didn’t emerge for another hour.
All of this is to say that Terminal 5 is exactly the wrong place for Cat Power. Marshall makes sleepy, introverted music, and she requires patience, both in her music and in her persona. And when you’ve been standing up for three hours listening to French trip-hop and then waiting forever in a space like that, patience comes in short supply. But she didn’t do herself any favors either. Lately, Marshall’s been playing with the horribly named Dirty Delta Blues Band, a backing band of indie-rock vets, and her new album, Jukebox, is all covers. I like all this stuff in theory: Marshall’s been doing radically altered covers since her hair-curtain days, all the guys in her band are technical monsters perfectly capable of playing supporting roles, and relaxed Southern bar-rock choogling seems like it should make a good skeleton for her airy warble. But Jukebox, it turns out, is a total snooze. The band turns its source-material songs into watery vamps, stripping them of melodic cohesion and giving Marshall nothing to do but riff vocally, which just isn’t enough to carry an album. Onstage, it was more of that last night, and Marshall still isn’t a confident enough frontwoman to carry that stuff because Chan Marshall’s swagger is still most singers’ gawky bird-walk. Last night she seemed restless and anxious onstage: barely able to stand still, hopping around the wings, leaving the stage for long stretches throwing T-shirts like a hypeman. Musically, she showed the same sort of timidity, singing listlessly around the band’s grooves when she could’ve just been plowing through them.
The show still had its powerful moments. It’s great to hear the Blues Explosion’s Judah Bauer soloing again, even soloing as languidly as he did last night. Back in the day, Cat Power and the Blues Explosion were the total opposite ends of the Matador Records spectrum, and so it was something of a trip just to see them standing next to each other onstage. And even though the show was devoted to covers way more than to Cat Power songs, some of those covers were brilliantly chosen. I’m thinking in particular of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (To Stop Now),” which closed the show. Even though Redding’s voice couldn’t be more different from Marshall’s, both singers use their voices in similar ways, riffing and ad-libbing endlessly rather than singing straight-on melodies. This could’ve been a real show with a few more moments like that one.
All through last night, the sound system gave Marshall problems, emitting weird hums or feeding back at the worst possible moments. A few years ago, problems like those would’ve turned Marshall into a puddle. Last night, she made a valiant attempt to play through them, but she still complained about them at every possible opportunity. And she’s right that the feedback was a problem, but it wasn’t the only problem.
Voice review: Garrett Kamps on Cat Power’s Jukebox
Voice review: Nick Catucci on Cat Power’s The Greatest
Voice review: Emma Pearse on Cat Power’s You Are Free
Voice review: Jane Dark on Cat Power’s Moon Pix