Hi, Hello, I Love You to Everybody: Cat Power

Little Orphan ChannieCat Power

Majestic Theatre, Detroit, April 15, 2003

Chan Marshall had a neat trick up the sleeve of her shapeless flannel Tuesday night. Performing her dark-toned folk tales for an unruly hodgepodge of indie fashionistas, reverent fans, and blathering curiosity seekers, she convinced each of them that her show was a personal, individual gift. But in reality, each Cat Power performance might be an elaborate, one-sided codependence trip that keeps Chan Marshall sane.


Originally from Atlanta, Marshall moved to New York City in the early 90s and fell in with Steve Shelley, who eventually released some of her initial recordings on his Smells Like imprint. From the beginning, it was the stark interplay between Marshall’s guitar and throaty, expressive moan that lent her tunes their Child ballad quality. But it was also apparent early on that the woman behind Cat Power was as enigmatic and unpredictable as she was captivating. Flighty, disjointed interviews. Halting live performances that re-drew the line between genius and “I want my money back!” And a career that, while seemingly flourishing on the New York label Matador, seemed to unfold in a crumpled, unrecognizable heap. There was plenty of greatness in that pile, but a big pile of weird, too. After 1998’s acclaimed Moon Pix, Cat Power issued an album of cover songs, most of which were radically altered, all of which were given new, haunting chapters by Marshall’s distinctive voice.

After a three year disappearing act, Marshall/Cat Power returned in early 2003 with You Are Free (Matador), an album that tempered its considerable darkness with lilting arrangements for piano and guitar, and seemed to offer some sunny hope with its title and cover art. While You Are Free was an accomplished piece of work, Marshall’s concurrent volatility/fragility would seem to have axed any attempt by Matador or her publicists to market the record (or its music celebrity guest appearances). Wrong! A video appeared for the single “He War.” Appearances were booked on “Letterman.” And the album was lauded from here to Henny Penny. But Marshall was as quirky as ever in interviews, and just as unpredictable live. All of the hoopla over an artist that had seemed to have found her specific, non-commercial niche was a bit strange. Why would Marshall agree to it? Maybe she needed it.

In anticipation of Cat Power’s appearance Tuesday night in Detroit, a line snaked south on Woodward Avenue, and around the backside of the Majestic Theatre complex. Obviously, the publicists had done their job. Inside, the crowd was sweaty from an early bout with warm weather. The Majestic is tall, and its so-so sound system usually isn’t capable of filling it very effectively. And that’s when a full band is playing. With his left-hand strung Fender and gawky, Epic Soundtracks-meets-Emo Phillips looks, the second opening act looked very lonely on the theatre’s big stage, and his wandering, bluesy laments were soon drowned out by sarcastic clapping. It was strange, considering the crowd had paid to see an artist with a similar style. Whatever. The guy bellowing “You suck! More Cat Power-FULL!” behind me must have thought Cat Power was a new NASCAR team.

Eventually and without fanfare, Marshall and her band took the stage. Sitting down at an upright piano and guitar stand at the extreme far left of the stage, she quickly donned an enormous pair of sunglasses, which were lost in her drab pageboy cut. With her feet clad in clodhopping GI Joe moon boots and a baggy, shapeless flannel, the effect was like watching an indie rock Unibomber tune a Danelectro. “Is it okay if I’m way over here?” she whispered into the mic. The crowd roared.

Joining Marshall onstage were Margaret White, who tripled between violin, bass, and keys; guitarist Coleman Lewis; and drummer Will Fratesi. The latter two were old friends from Atlanta, where Lewis’ old band Smoke used to play shows with Marshall. Throughout the evening, she would wink and laugh at Lewis’ gangsta-style antics on the microphone (at one point, he shizzalated a few words), and at one point cut a song short to desperately bum one of his cigarettes. The Hot-lanta home team pals might have been on purpose: their presence seemed to relax the normally flighty Marshall. Despite mentioning her nervousness numerous times, and chronically removing and donning her gargantuan blueblockers, Marshall and her band made it through an almost two-hour set without much of drama.

After an introductory set with the whole band that was a bit tentative and plagued with sound problems (both Lewis and White’s mics were too loud, which diminished the already halting vocals of Marshall), the three supporting musicians departed the stage. But before they left, each took time to hug their leader, and whisper words of encouragement in her ear. It was if they were the proud parents of a little girl about to play her first piano recital. Marshall proceeded into a 45-minute trip through solo piano and guitar that included material both new, old, and unrecognizable. And even though she either faced her piano or hid behind her hair, it was her voice — much more expressive and raw live than is often displayed on record — that cut through the humid air in the club. Each song became a private concert, a voice floating out of monitors that seemed too big for such personal music. While much of the crowd had either left or fallen asleep by the end of the set, the reverent diehards who gathered before her seemed to drift right along with Cat Power’s raw blues and arresting (when understandable) lyrics. But they might have been too busy blissing out to notice that Marshall sang huddled over, almost to herself. She recognized the crowd, often twirling her drink overhead in a social. And she seemed to grow more comfortable with each pause, even pushing her cornstalk hair away from her face for a moment. But she never seemed to really be in the room. It was her trick to let her somber vocals and aching blues-folk affect each fan so much, while perhaps secretly siphoning the room’s energy into an enormous self-confidence storehouse hidden somewhere behind her hair and physical barriers.

JTL

Check out a Kristy Eldredge’s take on last year’s Cat Power show in New York as well as her hopped-up review of You Are Free. The image of Ms. Marhsall dressed up as Annie comes from Matador.

11 thoughts on “Hi, Hello, I Love You to Everybody: Cat Power”

  1. hey, great piece of writing – you really tried to catch the essence and meaning of cat power.

    but i have one concern: if this facsinating self-indulgence on stage is an inevitable occurence with chan marshall (as it was with her awful Halifax appearance a few months back) then is ther a point where it becomes willful self-parody on stage? seriously, how many shows does someone have to play before they’re not “nervous” anymore? she can’t keep this up for long.

    she has become a performance artist, it seems, but without irony.

  2. Well coastal, my pal Klein was at the show, and HE was convinced Marshall’s onstage behavior was an act. He did make sure to clarify that he enjoyed her actual performance.

    Since she established her public persona and hit-or-miss performance style years ago, and it’s remained largely unchanged even through the recent boost in her exposure, I tend to believe that it’s all true. But that doesn’t mean it’s all good.

    Eventually, no matter how much amateur psychoanalysis will suggest that Cat Power needs to be on stage to reign in her sanity, will people just get tired of paying for shoddy or truncated performances?

  3. Coastal, I don’t think it’s self-indulgence, but a wish to hide herself — well, maybe that is self-indulgence. The description of her stage get-up sound like someone trying to hide underneath as many layers as she can. Of course that leads back to the question of what she’s doing up there… it’s all very repetitive, I realise. Hey, are you Canadian? I accidentally wrote realise, the British way. Is that how they spell it up there? I used to live there but I forget.

    Johnny, I’m glad you liked the show, and glad Chan’s playing with musicians who relax her somewhat. I was wondering, did she do any of the more rockin numbers from “You Are Free” with the band — did she do “Free” or “He War”? She’s been so subdued in performance lately.

  4. >how many shows does someone have to play before they’re not “nervous” anymore?

    >I don’t think it’s self-indulgence, but a wish to hide herself

    Maybe I’m missing something here (having not seen her in performance), but perhaps she ought to consider a non-touring career. It’s somewhat difficult to hide on stage, especially when you’re selling ticket so that people can actually see you on stage.

    She certainly didn’t look camera-shy in a full-page photo–a close-up of her face–in a recent piece in the “New York Times Magazine.”

  5. kristy, i saw her in sf in feb and while she did not play he war or free, her performance seened far less subdued than usual…well, maybe that’s cause even though i have seen her about 4 times, this was my frist time seeing her with a band in person. they played american flag and nude as the news. rockin’. she seemed less nervous than ever before.

  6. >Hey, are you Canadian? I accidentally wrote realise, the British way. Is that how they spell it up there? I used to live there but I forget.

    well, that all depends kristy..would you hate me if i was?

  7. Thanks, Sarah. Having a band does seem to free her up. I saw her with one once and she seemed to be having a good time. Maybe the question is, why does she perform solo if it’s such a drag. She’s really good at singing the rockier stuff and at writing it — all those great hooks. Multitalented, our Chan. — Stephen, it’s crossed my mind too, why she doesn’t just non-perform. But we’ve all pondered that one many times…

    Coastal: Hate you? Not at all. I think Canadians are rad!

  8. Regarding the question “how many shows does someone have to play before they aren’t nervous anymore” I’d just like to say that that isn’t how stage fright works. It doesn’t go away just because you do more shows. In fact, continuing to perform can exacerbate the condition, which is a fairly common neurosis that can become debilitating. It’s the reason XTC stopped performing. Andy Partridge literally toured himself into a nervous breakdown. Just wanted to toss in my two cents, and since I don’t know Cat Power’s work yet that’s the only change I could find.

    P.S. I understand that over the last couple of years XTC have actually performed a time or two in front of small audiences, and that is encouraging.

  9. I think her stage persona’s an act. When I saw her,she was chatting happily with a friend of mine who knew her just seconds before her onstage fraidycat antics-but,her records are great and that is what will matter 100 years from now among conoisseurs.

  10. i saw cat power in newport, ky at southgate house just a couple of months ago. while i thought her voice was beautiful, i found myself wandering far from what was going on onstage. i ended up talking to some friends. i felt bad for talking through her set, but man, if i hadn’t, i would have fallen asleep.

    apparently, she wouldn’t talk to anyone after the show and felt that her performance sucked. it didn’t. it just wasn’t really show-going material, i think. i like to be somewhat entertained and challenged by the music, not lulled. that’s just me. there were plenty of fans there willing to listen and take part.

    maybe i’m just into more rockin’ live shows. i really love her albums, the two that i have, and think she’s a great musician. but i don’t think i’d go see her live again. i hope that she can eventually overcome this stage fright or act or whatever it is. i’ve said the same thing; if it’s really that bad, don’t tour. but i realise that not many musicians have that option financially.

    blah. just putting in my two cents.

  11. I went to a Cat Power gig (in England) a couple of weeks ago and my friends and I agreed that although the neuroticism did seem contrived and somewhat over-egged it didn’t detract from the overall impact of the performance; my only gripe was that we went to see as well as hear but the whole thing took place in near darkness – we never got to see her face !!

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