By Ben Green
The stage is empty for a long time. Two drum kits, keyboards, amps and screens, two microphones in the centre hinting at a techy edge to The New Cat Power Show… but no people. We’re patient, she’ll start when she’s ready, we expect that much. We just hope she starts. People mill around, buy drinks, buy T-shirts, catch up and talk about the times they’ve seen Cat Power before, except the young woman near us who’s never seen her and is pretty emotional about the prospect. When the music over the house speakers becomes ‘Heroes’ we perk up – surely this must be the walk-on music for the triumphant return, the electronic reinvention? No, more songs. When eventually the lights go down and the stage turns blue, the song that plays loudly and clearly is Bob Dylan’s ‘Shelter From The Storm’. It doesn’t occur to me until much later, but Chan Marshall could have chosen this so that the woman in Dylan’s song would offer shelter to us, the weather-beaten locals.
When we’ve been offered shelter 10 times over 10 verses, the band members enter one by one and begin to play – drummer, guitarist, percussionist/keyboardist, guitarist – all confident and cool. Gregg Foreman of Cat Power’s previous Dirty Delta Blues Band is the only familiar figure. Softly they take up a familiar chord progression and the young woman near us exclaims through her hands that are covering her mouth: it’s ‘Sea Of Love’ from The Covers Record (2000), a standard, although to a generation of bedroom guitarists on YouTube it’s a Cat Power song. Now the band play it while they wait for Cat Power.
After just a little too long she enters to adoring cheers, and hangs off a mic stand for just a little too long watching the band, before taking the mic to the lip of the stage and singing, pacing in the spotlight. She sings in that full-throated, bluesy voice of her recent albums, neck extended, expertly controlling the distance of the mic, but still warming up at this stage. She holds the mic out for the crowd – “ho-ow much I love you”. Interaction with the front rows, movement, bright lights… but I’m too close. I see her fidget, look at the sound guy, look at Foreman – it becomes apparent he’s the 2IC – as if imploring him to end the song, which he does after what she seems to think is just a little too long.
‘The Greatest’ starts at a glacial pace, with fragile guitar notes floating alone in the air like a Mogwai song. I only recognise it when the words come in - “Once I wanted to be the greatest/only a waterfall could stop me…” It’s dark and that voice has nowhere to hide. Later some people will call the voice amazing, while others will say it sounded strained or shot To my ears it’s done some living and is capable of expressing it, perhaps not as subtly as the breathier recorded version, or perhaps in a different way. It sounds like Cat Power and that’s saying something. The song builds, like the rush to the waterfall in the lyrics, to a battering climax of drums and blinding light. It’s overwhelming, and in hindsight everything to this point is magical, so why am I not swept away? I’m thinking too much? Watching too closely?
“Is that ‘Sweet Jane’?” asks one of my companions as the band starts a slow, three-chord chug. “Could be – or maybe it’s ‘Crimson And Clover’?” All the classics have the same three chords. The chorus, to our surprise, we know immediately – “Down my spi-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-iiiinnnee”. Does she know that in this country, especially since its chagrined writer died, ‘Shivers’ is almost an anthem? Regardless, she Frankensteins it into another song; it’s oddly beautiful and sounds made up on the spot, and this is when I remember. How I know Cat Power. Cat Power’s the one who sang ‘We Dance’ like a sad, proud cry, exploring guitar strings nowhere near the “proper” chords but finding what it meant to her, and to me; who turned ‘Schizophrenia’ into an American spiritual; found the blues in ‘Satisfaction’; made ‘Fuck The Pain Away’ into a gypsy dance to get drunk and fall over to in front of expectant crowds, wrote ‘Colours And The Kids’, and sang a 15-minute song about the times she’s met Bob Dylan and what she would have liked to say. She didn’t put his song on, earlier, just for us. It’s been her pre-show music for the whole world tour.
The thing is, for Chan Marshall music’s both the shelter and the storm. We’ve all heard, too much, about the problems she’s faced as a magnetic performer with stage fright, a believer in magic who’s not willing or able to fake it ’til it happens. The one time I saw her play solo she didn’t finish a song - no satisfaction indeed. As Bob Dylan could tell you, faking is a big part of making magic. To suspend your disbelief, to sweep you away into something that feels “real”, the movies use lights, makeup, pushy music. For Cat Power this equates to lights, a set-list, and a band that won’t stop even when she tells them to.
They’re the right band. Drummer Alianna Kalaba, despite being behind a screen and using rods not sticks, is fucking loud (she played two Boadrums), even before you add the percussionist. Guitarist Adeline is confident and focused and multi-instrumentalist Foreman adds a range of colour. A lot of the songs from Sun (2012), like many of Cat Power’s best, are built from chants and mantras and while the record doodles colourfully around them, they benefit live from a stripped, gutsy attack. Slide guitar-led ‘Silent Machine’ is big and dirty; an earthy ’3, 6, 9′ gets people moving. Chan’s voice gets stronger as the night progresses, and her performance more patient – lengthy album climax ‘Nothin’ But Time’ is measured and graceful, and could only improve if Iggy appeared for his part (not to mention that the guy is a human Power Animal who could give anyone mental strength just by being in the same room). Out-and-out crowd-pleaser ‘Ruin’ has the band nailing the double-dutch vocals and ends with Chan bashing a snare.
But it’s not the simple, Cat-gets-happy-now-let’s-party-like-a-pop-concert narrative, not completely. It’s too real, like test audiences said about that new, ultra-clear movie technology. The visuals are non-sequiturs – one minute a stylised gorilla logo, next minute a slideshow of locals in a foreign country (in South Asia?), not fitting any clear stereotype of the “other”, just hanging out. Real people. The air’s a bit heavy for the breezy ‘Manhattan’ to get folk dancing. ’I Don’t Blame You’ – the song about a performer who doesn’t want to please their crowd – is radically reworked into skeletal beat form with no payoff. And most of all, the focus of everyone’s attention is visibly human – worrying, thinking, trying. A person, who writes, records and sings great songs. The most transcendent moment, when it’s actually possible to lose everything else, is the soaring ‘Angelitos Negros’: Chan Marshall just a black silhouette against a blinding back light, singing in Spanish, demolishing any doubts about that voice. Maybe in the dark, in another language, neither of us are thinking too much; less person more music. Her happiest moment, however, seems to be after the house lights come on. Even as I leave she’s still walking the stage, taking and giving flowers and hands, smiling and talking.