04 Feb, 2013

Cat Power at the Ogden Theater

Cat Power is erratic. Chan Marshall’s extensive history of debilitating stage fright, mental breakdowns, and substance abuse have so colored perceptions of her music that her image, for years, has been that of the delicate, wilting flower, singing at volumes barely above a whisper, her face averted from the crowd. Of course, this is the myth of Cat Power, rather than the considerably more complicated reality that had her scantily clad accompanying the Flaming Lips on a Black Sabbath song in 2004, recording a bouncier, soul-influenced update of her earlier sound on 2006’s The Greatest, and providing a more consistent, polished live show since all the way back then. Still though, when a myth like that remains, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, it carries within it at least part of the artist’s appeal.

The reason Cat Power’s music has elevated her above many of her contemporaries in the indie singer-songwriter sphere owes to its intimacy, the sense of being granted entry into a singular headspace. To assume then, that one of her concerts would trade on that intimacy. It would be unreasonable to imagine the erratic, mythic version of Cat Power would show up every night, but to expect both a heartfelt vulnerability and perhaps a slightly disjointed nature seems perfectly natural. Her concert on January 24th at The Ogden offered a strange variation on that disjointedness, with a lack of the type of intimacy that would redeem it.

In a move that’s complementary towards the material on her 2012 LP Sun and utterly detrimental to the rest of her catalog, Cat Power is performing on this tour with a full band whose sound leans more or less entirely towards the dance-rock end of the spectrum. For songs from Sun like “3,6,” and “Cherokee,” their accompaniment was competent, if rather workmanlike, but on the few occasions when they reached further back into her catalog, such as on the opening cut, Greatest’s title track, they entirely lacked the subtlety to draw out the music’s more restrained qualities. But the new-look Cat Power didn’t seem particularly concerned with subtlety this time around. When the press coverage surrounding Sun‘s release trumpeted her desire to reinvent herself, it seemed clear enough with that album’s dance-heavy electronic instrumentation, but it is in concert that her transformation becomes fully apparent. She took the stage sporting a short, spiky, new-wave indebted bleached blonde haircut, and in keeping with that, performed more like Annie Lennox than a trembling folksinger. The Sun songs that were played had a powerful heft to them, and Marshall’s CBGB-derived moves lent themselves naturally, but there was a frustrating sense of disconnect. Marshall was animated, but only rarely acknowledged the crowd, her vocals wrapped in a heavy reverb that rendered many of her lyrics unintelligible.

I can applaud Marshall’s attempts to reinvent a persona that she felt had run its course, and if she is indeed the happier, more functional person she says she is, than all the changes she’s made are no doubt worth it. Still though, something is lost. It’s an exciting live show, and perhaps with some added refinement, it can becomes truly effective. High points like David Bowie quoting “Nothing But Time” were warm, affirming anthems, and she truly did seem to be having a lot of fun on stage, in a manner that’s practically unprecedented in her career. It’s telling though, that the show’s highest point was during the non-album track, “Bully,” the one extended period where the band scaled back and took a more minimal approach. Chan Marshall’s voice was, for a few brief minutes, exposed, pained, the crowd silent. She was, for that song, the Cat Power of legend, and that alone was worth the ticket.

Review by Ben Klibaner.

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