Chan Marshall powers through new hits, old classics

By David Nagel

Why is it so hard to write a straightforward review of a Cat Power concert? The facts are a woman named Chan Marshall walked out onto a stage and sang a selection of songs from her most recent record. But what did it mean? Some music doesn’t speak for itself; it requires the prism of personality—an extramusical element that Chan has wrestled with since her early years in the New York anti-folk scene. And perhaps this is what has drawn Cat Power steadily towards the sound of vintage soul music, the genre that most inhabits 2006’s The Greatest and her newest release, the covers-oriented Jukebox. Like the folk-blues that colored her beginnings, soul music can highlight the singer as much as the song, and render them indistinguishable.

When the Vic’s house lights dimmed at an uncommonly early hour last Sunday night, it was the four über-professional backup musicians going by the moniker Dirty Delta Blues that took the stage. They quickly settled into a sultry blues vamp that managed to aurally replicate the smoke-laden atmosphere higher authorities of general welfare are bent on making part of the mythological past. As if summoned by the setting, Chan Marshall emerged with uncalculated gait, voicing the restrained pleas of “Don’t Explain,” an adept if not revolutionary take on the song made famous by Billie Holliday. As the set continued, she hypnotized the audience with a hypersensitivity to the nuance of every syllable. Rather than simply grooving to the music, Marshall raised her physical gestures to the level of interpretive dance. She would crouch, wander, and contort in her efforts to merge with the songs and act them out within the limits of the stage. By coming to grips with the inevitability of presentation and craft in performance, Cat Power has transformed into a musical force capable of fitting her idiosyncratic inspiration to the bounds necessitated by a live setting.

However, just when you begin believing the talk that Chan’s newfound maturity (read: not being an unstable mess) has rendered her incapable of the kind of naked genius that marked her earlier work, she pulls the kind of trick that only the best performers can: vanishing. No, not literally, though numerous occasions of stage-fleeing in the past informed the image of Cat Power–as-tortured-artist that still follows her. Instead, Chan’s disappearance was a product of her dedication to serving the music. Halfway through the set, there was no longer any way to separate Chan’s mannerisms, both vocal and physical, from the sadness of the music and lyrics to “She’s Got You.” The Patsy Cline cover was released only on the limited edition bonus disc of Jukebox, which, incidentally, features several songs of equal if not higher quality than the standard issue. One example of her ability to disappear inside a song and make it more powerful was revealed on the following “Song to Bobby,” the sole original cut on Jukebox and a moving confession of love to the singer who has most profoundly mastered the vanishing act: Dylan.

While the sound of the set’s louder songs, such as the rousing “Song to Aretha” and a reworking of the 10-year-old “Metal Heart,” showed the Dirty Delta Blues’ power to combine the best of soul and rock into an unpretentious good time, there is no way to overlook the fact that Chan Marshall’s thin pipes were drowned out by the rousing result. With enough extra volume as can be added in a studio context, Cat Power à la rave-up is a nuanced and alluring creation. However, it is still in slower, thinner textures that Chan Marshall comes into her own as an equal with the legends she generously pays tribute to. With her clasped hands raised upwards and a minimal backing formed mostly of the audience clapping, Cat Power’s hushed voicing of the traditional “Lord, Help the Poor and Needy” took on a quiet, intense spirituality as powerful as she had belted it out. For her final number, Chan bravely essayed the Stax classic “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” but could not cut through the swelling music in the inestimable manner that Otis Redding did over 40 years ago. However, as the song closed and the Dirty Delta Blues faded away, her voice was left in the silence of the venue; it never sounded as perfect.