On Monday night I ventured out of my sheltered abode in order to see my first concert out in the western wilds of Massachusetts - none other than Ms. Chan Marshall herself, Cat Power. Never having seen Cat Power before, I honestly had no idea what to expect: anyone who knows anything about her knows that her live performance history is . . . let's say "erratic" and be kind, shall we? She's got a habit of breaking down on stage, running off in mid-performance - mid-song, sometimes - when something upsets her. She has always cultivated an image of frailty and imbalance, and while you could legitimately ask whether or not some of her visible disarray is calculated, there's never been any doubt that her discomfort at performing live is genuine and painfully acute.
This was not the Cat Power we saw on Monday. Sure, she is an eclectic presence - despite rumors of newfound sobriety, she looked to be at least partly drunk (to guess from the fact that stagehands refilled her glass at least twice during the show), and she moved like someone with at least a partial buzz on. Very catlike, as a matter of fact. But she was nevertheless a confident and commanding presence throughout the show. She only managed to forget the lyrics once during the set (she did have a music stand with lyrics that she referenced occasionally), but seemed unconcerned with her flub: no lying in a heap on the middle of the stage and weeping uncontrollably.
I must admit that I wasn't quite as enchanted with her newer material as I wanted to be. I thought The Greatest was a decent album, but nowhere near as good as many other critics maintained - for all the songwriting acumen and musical skill on display (both from Marshall and her crack team of Memphis all-stars), the whole thing seemed a bit too sleepy. There's an intensity in Cat Power's best records that was lacking on much of The Greatest (and they neglected to play my favorite song off that record, the rather more intense "Love and Communication"). The first handful of songs were taken from that record, and as a consequencethe show took a while to warm up.
She didn't play "Living Proof" either, but
this video always cracks me up.
But when it did - well, it cooked. She's one of the few artists I've ever seen with the balls not only to take on the Stones' "Satisfaction" but to convincingly remake it in her own image as well. Her current live version is nothing like the stripped-down acoustic version she recorded for her Covers Album, but it's still pretty damn good. I really can't stand that song after having heard it so many times over the last few decades, but she makes it sing with something like the transgressive, nervous energy it must have originally possessed way back in 1965.
Not from the Northampton show,
but with her current touring band
The highlight of the show, however, was her cover of "Tracks Of My Tears". Yeah, I can honestly say that the maudlin Smokey Robinson number is probably one of my least favorite Motown songs - I never cared for Robinson's voice, to begin with. But Marshall takes the sleepy ballad and turns it into the kind of soul powered rave-up that Aretha Franklin specialized during her late-60s heyday. Easily the highlight of show, her performance was startlingly intense.
Based on her reputation I was skeptical going in, but there were no flies on her on Monday. Perhaps the show flagged in spots, due to the subdued, borderline-somnolent nature of some of her original tracks, but whenever the material allowed she rose to the occasion with sublime aplomb. There's a lot of contradictory hyperbole surrounding Cat Power's strange career, but at this point I can safely say that she's as powerful an onstage presence as I've ever seen.