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.