CITY ARTS FEST (Day 2)
5th Ave. Theater
October 21, 2010
The iconic Chan Marshall (AKA Cat power) set the intimate 5th avenue Theater warmly aglow during the second night of the first ever Heineken City Arts Festival. Accompanying her was a skilled 4-piece backing band, consisting of guitar, bass, Fender Rhodes, and drums. Bathed in blue light, she effortlessly slow danced her way through lovely renditions of songs spanning her entire career. Her voice filled the venue to the rafters and she would occasionally strip a song down to nothing but vocals, backed only by a solitary piano or guitar. There were sparse bluesy jams where Chan played a tinny guitar, repeating simple riffs as the band filled in the colors. There were loosely psychedelic spaces where she didn’t even sing. Everything she presented was taken in and hungrily received by everyone in attendance.
Witnessing her live, the unique talent that has led so many other female vocalists to try and duplicate her became obvious. There’s a certain quality… A very feminine, bluesy, whispery, and untrained quality to Cat Power. I hear it all the time on college radio. I’ll be driving around listening to KEXP and think to myself , “Nice… Cat Power” But no, its Feist! Or, “THIS has got to be Cat power!” Nope… Holly Miranda? Sometimes I think, “Damn, that local girl is influenced by Chan Marshall” and its Sera Cahoone or… maybe, Carrie Biell. She is like a microcosmic version of what The Beatles did in 1964 or Nirvana in 1991. As far as I can tell, there is somewhat of a before and after to when Marshall first hit the scene in the mid-nineties. Obviously, this does not ring as true in a “mainstream” sense, but more so in the genre of “indie” femme vocalists, in which she has spawned countless imitators. Maybe this is just a hyperbole akin to thinking something stupid like, “all rap sounds alike” for the person who doesn’t really listen to rap and wants to “diss” it (but that’s probably not the case). It is now clear to me that this thirty something singer has influenced an entire genre of music. She reminds me of Patsy Cline, only without the tragic ending.
I was first turned onto Cat Power as a young Seattlite/musician in my twenties. A record store clerk in my home town of St. Augustine, Florida had mentioned her work to my mom, who, in turn, sent me her first record [yes… my mom turned me onto Chan Marshall]. From then, me and my friends would routinely cover such Cat Power songs as “Crossbones Style” and “Sea of Love” (already a cover, itself). For guys who weren’t the greatest guitar players in the world, Cat Power was just our JAM. The simplicity and quiet passionate delivery was perfect for white boys with bad diaphragms.
The last time that I had seen a Cat Power performance was way back in the day (“the day” probably falling in the year 2000!). That show was held at The Crocodile and featured Marshall standing solo behind a microphone with a janky Silvertone guitar. Her bangs hid the top half of her face as she delivered skeletal, slightly country guitar patterns laced with that unmistakable voice. She was kind of sucked up into her own mind, not paying much attention to the audience in front of her. This proved to be for the better, as sometimes a shy person on stage can be far more interesting of a performer than a dancing monkey, masturbating and banging shiny tambourines. The Cat Power of 2010 has eased into the role as a performer, strolling the stage, searching out the eyes of folks in the crowd. She can be herself now; she is embraced universally. Gone were the days of the onstage nervous breakdowns and extreme bouts of self consciousness (there are stories of meltdowns which include lying in a drunken heap onstage and apologizing to the audience profusely, as they did their best to console her). Sitting there on this night I witnessed a composed Chan Marshall. I have even heard that she is sober now.
When the lights came up slightly, I was surprised to see that the entire 5th Avenue Theater was filled and everyone was quietly transfixed. Many an “I love you Chan!” was proclaimed and there were generous applause between songs, but these were followed by moments of damn near silence. The serious reverence for this woman rendered audience members eyes and ears agape, longing for a snippet of a sentence or spoken thought. The folk siren exuded so much mystery through her voice that everything seemed to be shrouded in some sort of eerie code and a knowing that linear narrative is boring and that we were seeing directly into the stuff dreams are made of. She continued to dance slowly through much of the set, making eyes with the trendy young man fingering the ivories and grooving with only a microphone as her companion. Ethereally high vocals penetrated the hypnotic rhythm of deep cut “Crossbones Style” and she was vamping like a sedate Mick Jagger when singing lines like, “I was lost but now I’m Found/I was blind, but now I see you” during the set climax, “Metal Heart.” Two hours flew by and as the set came to a somewhat heavy close, with the band competently improvising in a subdued psychedelic manner.
Ms. Marshall brought a bouquet of daisies down and handed one to almost everyone in the front row. It was a fine gesture, if not a little weird that she was behind a 3 foot, wrought iron security barrier. After that the lights came on and she balled up the set lists that were taped to the stage, throwing them out to the audience in a terribly awkward, though genuinely endearing, manner. I always thought that was the true test of a great artist; if they could throw a baseball (or a set list) “properly” (like an athlete ). The ones who can’t tend to be great and Chan Marshall is one of them; effortless and doing what she was meant to do. Sure, she can’t throw a ball, but she was born to sing.