Holly Barnes 10/06/2008
A couple of years ago Cat Power was known for her erratic and unpredictable live performances; as with Ryan Adams gigs, the audience had to hope she was in a good mood and not too inebriated. Cat Power, the stage persona of Chan Marshall, was a timid performer, uncomfortable with the attention, and this provided mixed results ranging from the sublime to the fumbling. Today, post-alcohol addiction, she has found a new confidence attributed in part to her excellent collaborators, the Dirty Delta Blues band. Standing in the centre of a semi-circle of musicians around her, she now chooses to perform vocals only, no longer hiding behind a grand piano or guitar and equally comfortable stepping back to allow greater focus on instrumental solos or taking the very front of the stage.
Tonight's set is drawn mostly from Cat Power's last album 'Jukebox', a collection of tunes defamiliarised and redrawn in her authentic-sounding bluesy, folksy style. Intensified by plenty of Hammond organ, blues drums and slide guitar, covers range from the recognisable and vaguely faithful (such as 'Woman Left Lonely', written for Janis Joplin) to the transfigured and obscured (New York). Chan's voice is breathy at times, particularly reverberant in the lower registers and gaspingly passionate at the higher notes. It may be a shocking cliché, but at her current peak Chan really could sing the telephone directory and sound incredible. Luckily for the audience, though, her choice of songs are usually impeccable and we are treated to Hank Williams' Ramblin' Man, She's Got You which was popularised by Patsy Cline in 1962, and Joni Mitchell's Blue, layered with swooning slide guitar. An uptempo 'Tracks of My Tears' (Smokey Robinson) and standard Blue Moon are received well, although Chan admits herself that another non-Jukebox effort, a bewildering and stilted run through Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, isn't quite working. The evening provides several highlights, one of which is the haunting rendition of Billie Holiday's 'Don't Explain' followed immediately by the more upbeat and joyful Aretha, 'Sing One For Me.' These two songs in such close proximity display the musical and emotional range of Chan's voice and insert her into the tradition of truly incredible singers. Few vocalists can perform Billie Holiday and sound anything more than a poor imitation; Chan, however, proves a very beautiful exception.
Her own material is thin on the ground tonight, but 'Metal Heart' (the Jukebox version) makes an appearance, as does 'Lived in Bars.' Written before her thorough drying-out, the latter features lyrics that should comment “there's nothing like living in a bottle, and nothing like ending it all for the world”, but these are changed by Chan onstage to reflect her new outlook. It is a sign of her newfound confidence and security that she can command the stage and leave the audience spellbound with her own songwriting. 'Song to Bobby', essentially a love song to Dylan, sees Chan standing alone at the front of the stage, remaining still apart from a few hand gestures where her fingers try to convey the story she has expressed clearly enough in words. Where previously Cat Power has covered Dylan, such as 'Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again' for biopic 'I'm Not There', this song marks a transition to her own classic songwriting style. Storytelling lyrics are rare in Chan's back catalogue, but on the basis of Song to Bobby, and the influence of her explorations through timeless songwriting, perhaps we should expect more in this vein.
Chan spends the gig doing little hops and dances across the stage, twisting her hands into gesticulations and looking into the audience smiling; she has, like her music, undergone many changes and is all the better for it. When the night comes to an end, she is reluctant to leave and spends at least ten minutes tossing flowers into the crowd from a bouquet that seems to have magically appeared in her arms. Running out of flowers, she turns to scrunching up setlists and theatrically pitching them at members of the audience. She doesn't want to leave and neither do we.