Cat Power: She Got Caught in the Spotlight

Cat Power

October 3, The Knitting Factory, NYC

There’s never a dishonest moment in Chan Marshall’s singing, and her voice, with its whispery ache, cast the spell it always does when I heard her at the Knitting Factory Thursday night. But I wish she gave a shit about performing. What could be nerves, shyness or maybe indifference (who knows? She’s always called the most enigmatic songwriter on the scene) makes her derail many performances I’ve seen in various self-defeating ways. She seems remote from the audience, almost crooning to herself at times, but her concentration is fitful, so she doesn’t get lost inside the music long enough to let us get lost in it too. Segueing from one song to another without a break, Marshall often doesn’t finish the song she segues from. A restless roughing up of the chords midway through signals her discomfort or boredom with the current number and prefaces a switch to something else. It keeps you on edge, listening to this restlessness, and at times Thursday night it felt like we were watching her rehearse.

Her opening number had all the elements of a great Cat Power song – it was a new original, I think, though she never explains the songs – and it seemed to pick up from Moon Pix to add to her unconventional rock canon. The lyrics went: “The last time I saw you, you were throwing your guitar around the stage, you were in a rage, and I didn’t blame you.” Everything about the song was good – her supple, perfectly-in-tune voice, the lyrics, the melody that leaped around, the repeated rhymes of rage and stage. It was good to hear rage even mentioned in a Cat Power song. She needs more rage.

But the set, the first half of which she performed on the piano, went on to a series of quieter and quieter numbers, often in the same key and rhythm. Many had the feel of “Paths of Victory” from The Covers Record – that plain 2-4 beat, the simple chords. It was hard to tell if they were covers or not, but these songs lacked the creative complexity of her guitar songs. When she did strap on her guitar, someone yelled out “Rock and roll!” but Marshall remained in the hushed, whispery mood that she had started out in. She did do a torqued-up version of Blue Moon that I liked a lot, but even her commitment to that song seemed in doubt by the end. When her commitment wanes, ours weakens.

“I just want to hear her really let go and sing,” someone on the sidewalk was saying when I went outside for air, but when we all went back in, she was still singing softly and pulling her head back from the mike to weaken the volume of the occasional strong note. That heartfelt yell of hers, which has lit up songs like “King Rides By” and “Nude as the News,” was just not in evidence.

It’s still astonishing listening to her use her voice in its quiet mode. The way she drops down on a note and underscores it with the note of accompaniment, whether a plucked guitar string or pressed piano key, has such a delicacy and grace that you listen in awe. I wondered if she’s becoming mainly a chanteuse, an interpreter. I couldn’t sense a new batch of originals that would equal the tour de force of Moon Pix – instead, some of the songs were so simple they were just plain dull. But her soft voice caresses the melodies and the wistful ache is always there.

If she concentrated on a beautiful vocal rendition of each song, we wouldn’t need anything else. But that would mean devoting herself to each song as a separate entity, singing every note, and letting the song end like songs do end. Her refusal to end the songs feels like a denial of the act of performance – applause would remind her that there’s an audience out there.

The terrible shyness that keeps her hidden, not just behind her long dark hair but also in intangible ways, makes me wonder if performing is so excruciating for Marshall that she might want to give it up, like XTC’s Andy Partridge famously did. But if she does perform, some bargain has to be struck between the need and ability to sing gorgeously, and the self-destructive urge that chokes the songs off halfway through, cuts off the audience’s ability to respond and ultimately estranges even adoring fans.

14 thoughts on “Cat Power: She Got Caught in the Spotlight”

  1. Kristy,

    All I ever read about Chan Marshall’s performances is that they’re wrecks. That she often walks offstage in a fit of stage fright or simply loses it. Having never seen Cat Power, what’s the draw? I love Moon Pix but if she can’t perform, what are people hoping for? Is it simply to watch a musician fall apart under public scrutiny?

    Also, have you noticed any sort of hipster backlash to her shows in NYC? It seems to be getting to be a bit of a joke.

  2. chan is indeed frustrating in concert. but that voice is even more astounding, healing, cathartic, miraculous, bending and dipping around notes in person. i wouldn’t give that up, even if she is noticeably uncomfortable.

    and if her live show became more stable, would she still be the chan of cat power? it’s hard to speculate with her, because it feels like her last two records have been sort of flukes. who knows where she is going…i’m still on for the ride, though.

  3. I have to agree with Kristy’s review.  I was at the Knitting Factory show and was quiet disenchanted with Chan’s performance.  It took some effort and expense for me to take off work and trek into the city only to not be able to see the woman I paid to “see” (and she was about 20 feet away).  I still love her music and she sounded wonderful that night, but halfway through her “performance” the heat got to me and I felt ripped off so I made the trek back home.

  4. Derek,

    I think people still go see her out of hope that her incredible gifts will have brought forth a miracle. The religious wording is no accident because I think people do feel religiously toward her. She’s uncanny, and as S says, hearing her sing live is truly amazing. As for the breaking down and walking off stage, she hasn’t done that for a while, from what I’ve seen and read. She manages to get through a set, but with the self-sabotaging behavior I described. Anyway, the place was packed. I wonder if NY audiences are hard for her because they’re so subdued. No one broke in on her self-enclosed bubble. Is this answering your question? She’s not a joke in New York yet. I’ll think twice before I go see her again, though.

  5. Yeah, that answers my questions. I just wondered if cynical hipsters were beginning to tag this whole thing as a put-on. You know, just one more way to get press or attention or whatever. The tortured, introverted artist up on a stage is such an easy target I just wondered if people were growing weary of it.

    That’s not to say her behavior is contrived. I don’t know, I’ve never seen her live. It’s just that EVERY review of her shows I read has reference to some breakdown or another. I don’t know how that’d go over here in Chicago. Patience is low and hecklers are usually drooling in anticipation to stomp on a poor live performance.

    My review of the Brian Jonestown Massacre is a good example. One of the best live rock shows I’ve seen and some of the crowd was really getting steamed about Anton’s voice problems:

    They ended up missing a truly inspiring performance.

  6. I don’t think it’s a put-on. She’s just a mighty odd person, in regular life too I hear. It’s just, like (sory to always reference the Replacements) the Replacements were conflicted about performing and did all kinds of stupid shit to let everyone know they didn’t take it seriously, but at some point they grew up enough to realize people were paying good money for tickets, and and they couldn’t totally blow them off. I just think C.M. hasn’t reached that point and who knows if she will.

  7. Just want to add I read the Brian Jonestown Massacre review again — good reporting on the interaction of crowd and band, and the events that shaped that show. CP’s show did not have a moment that kicked her into gear, so maybe she needs to play Chicago more often.

  8. it’s great music for nodding off on smack. she said during this show “sometimes you have to hide the junk.” why do you think she tours so much she’s the nico of our times.

  9. i honestly don’t think that any crowd could “kick” chan into gear; she’s just too out of it for that. if she were to be/feel confronted by a crowd, i think that’s when the meltdowns happen, when she feels judged. i’m not quite sure why she continues to perform, and i get the idea from interviews that she’s not so sure either.

  10. I saw Chan play in Halifax on Oct 5, and everything Kristy says rings true. It was like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

    And while I really really want to believe it’s not a put-on, I have trouble imagining why someone would put themselves through that sort of anxiety over and over, with no sign of ever getting better at handling it.

  11. She wasn’t talking about drugs when she said “junk”. I’ve hung out with her. She’s not on drugs, though it’s hard to keep her eyes from flitting around the room.

  12. I wish I could say that I had had the experience of seeing her perform live so I could comment on this story. Unfortunately, my only perspecive on this piece is the fact that the last time I tried to see her the show was cancelled the day of (and I have a feeling, the afternoon of). Then, when we came back to see the rescheduled show, we found that it had been cancelled too – and this time, no reschedule, just “call ticketmaster and try to get your money back.” Aha. Sure, maybe she had strep, for all I know. It just made me feel like “idiot savant” is the right call about her more than “musician.”

    Incidentally, we saw Storytelling that night instead and really enjoyed it.

  13. Some people just aren’t cut out for live performance. Brian Wilson stopped touring for ages. Maybe she just needs to hang in a sand box for a few years?

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