I took friends to see Cat Power last Friday night at Town Hall. I'd seen her once before, a long time ago, opening for Liz Phair, and I braced my friends for the worst. Cat Power, real name Chan (pronounced Shawn) Marshall, is notorious for her sometimes jumbled concerts and jittery onstage persona. When her Memphis Rhythm Band appeared on stage and began playing, the microphone standing there alone at the center of the stage, I tensed. Maybe Marshall had decided not to come onstage? Maybe, like Eminem in 8 Mile, she was throwing up in a backstage bathroom, overcome with stage fright?
The band consisted of two guitars, a bass, two violins, a cello, drums, two backup vocalists, a piano, saxophone, and trumpet/coronet(?). I may even be leaving someone out. After an overture or two from the band, they jumped into the opening bars of "The Greatest." Still no Cat.
And then she appeared from stage right, barefoot, dressed in a sleeveless black top and black capri-like pants, dancing around like the crazy alternative girl you see on the dance floor grooving, doing her own thing, the one you think might be crazy but who is also unsettlingly alluring. She jumped into "The Greatest," flashing a smile and flexing her biceps after the opening line: "Once, I wanted to be the greatest." We had a perfect view from our seats in the sixth row, center Orchestra.
That voice. It seems to carry a built-in reverb, a raw purr that, like its owner, seems sexy, wistful, and fragile all at once. Having heard her mostly on CD up until now, it was clear during this concert that her voice is best appreciated live, in performance, when its warm density gives it a texture that seems palpable. On a cold night you could wrap it around yourself like a blanket of smoke.
For most of the concert, she seemed happy and at ease on stage, prowling back and forth on the stage, standing on her tiptoes, gesturing with her arms like Q’Orianka Kilcher's Pocahontas in The New World. Whispered speculations and the requisite drug use jokes could be heard from time to time in the seats nearby us, but I think she was much more at ease on stage than I remembered her being the last time I saw her. Her band and her fans seemed to be encouraging her, cushioning her, trying to blanket her with their love like they would a newborn infant.
Mid-concert, she disappeared midway through the ballad "Where Is My Love," leaving the band to carry the tune for an extended series of reprises. Finally, after everyone in the band had done their turn, a few members of the band could be seen peering towards stage right. "Where is my love?" sang one of the backup vocalists, and she shrugged as the audience realized that even the band had no idea where Marshall had disappeared to.
When she finally reappeared, I almost didn't recognize her. She had changed into a white strapless dress, and she'd pulled her hair back, allowing her attractive face to come out from behind her bangs. I was aware of a new train of thought disrupting my focus on the music. Cat Power was hot.
It's like revisiting an old high school buddy years later and discovering that his little sister has grown up to become a knockout. Perhaps the bangs are a security blanket, or a defense mechanism, but with her hair pulled back, Marshall was like a gangly but lovely swan. She sang the refrain one last time and brought the song to a close, and then the band left her alone on stage. She proceeded to sing a few songs alone, on guitar or the keyboard, and for the first time the fidgety Cat Power returned.
She started one song, and while strumming the guitar just ended it abruptly, saying, "Anyway." She started another tune, stopped and asked someone to remove a rolling snare, started the song again, then stopped to complain about a buzzing monitor. She fiddled with her guitar strap. Later, the keyboardist Rick Steff(?) gave her a smooch on her lips, and when he had his back to her, she wiped her lips as if grossed out (Steff, or whoever it was, seemed very touchy-feely with Cat Power, adding a creepy subtext to their interplay).
But Marshall never seemed at risk of falling over the edge. At one point, after moving her cup of water back and forth a few times like someone with OCD, she joked about herself, "Whatever keeps you sane!" At another point, she smiled between songs and proclaimed, "Sober!" From time to time she'd wave at friends in the crowd, and that voice. She covered The Animals "House of the Rising Sun" by herself, just a guitar to accompany her voice. It was lovely. Her voice needs little adornment, and using it she not only covers songs but makes them all her own.
She came back onstage for one encore, and then she was gone. As I filed out, I felt relaxed, all the tension having drained out of me. Our little baby had grown up.