Wednesday, September 6th, 2006
I will confess that I have avoided seeing Cat Power live in the past on account of her reputation as an… unpredictable performer. Though I’m sure for some that gamble is part of the appeal, I think I’d have just felt really uncomfortable if one of the shows I was at was one of her off-nights. So news of her recent sobriety and the fact that she was supporting what, for my money, is her best album – The Greatest – got me out on Labour Day evening for the second half of a double-header solo show. That and the guest listness.
While a little disappointed that the full Memphis Rhythm Band wasn’t going to be along for the ride, it was evident that she was deliberately going for an intimate vibe, what with opting for two shows at Lee’s Palace instead of one at a much larger venue. From the moment I arrived, I had the feeling that it was going to be a different sort of evening – for starters, the lineup was snaked all around the venue and into the parking lot around back. I cannot remember the last time, if ever, I stood in line at Lee’s Palace. Bizarro. Somewhat surprisingly, there still appeared to be some tickets available at the door – a betting man would have expected the show to be completely sold out. But if it wasn’t, it certainly felt it once everyone was inside. It was warm – not as stifling as I’ve experienced, but there would be more than one fainting victim before the evening was out. More on that later.
The scheduled 10:30 start time came and went and the natives began to get a little restless until Chan strolled out onstage at maybe 10 minutes to 11 to rapturous applause. Smiling – nay, BEAMING – Marshall seated herself with her electric guitar and began with, “House Of The Rising Sun”, and from the first whisper out of her mouth, that was it. For the next two hours plus, she would own us – every one. Her voice is like velvet and honey, delicate and raw and inhumanly expressive and perfectly accompanied by her guitar and piano playing. Playing from a tattered, red magic marker setlist (I suspect if anyone grabbed it as a souvenier, the rest of the tour would have to be cancelled), she mixed up new material with old and a liberal dose of covers and standards. The Greatest material sounded drastically different stripped of its R&B production, but still incredibly satisfying. And that voice. My God.
But perhaps more important and memorable than the actual performance was Chan Marshall herself. On this night, she was smiling, chatty, happy and radiant and seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. Seeing her for the first time, I was having great difficulty reconciling the artist onstage, communing with her audience, with the mercurial, difficult performer of legend. Not that I don’t believe the stories – I’ve heard far too many of them – but she must have checked that persona at the border because for Toronto on Monday night, she was just sublime. And beautiful. Hoo-boy.
Not that there wasn’t some eccentricity. About a third of the way through the show, she caught sight of someone in the wings offstage and became a little agitated, calling security to check it out because she had her personal belongings stashed in that room. But even that was more endearing than odd, with her alternately saying, “I got my stuff back there” with a little blues guitar riff, over and over again, until she was satisfied that she hadn’t been robbed. And then a while later, a girl in the audience near the front collapsed, likely from the heat, and taking notice, Chan became quite alarmed and came offstage to see what was the matter. Then, apparently satisfied that matters were in hand, disappeared without a word, leaving the audience confused and a little disconcerted. She was doing so well! But lo, after around 10 minutes, she came back onstage with a refilled mug of tea (“sober!”) and picked up where she left off, not a word of explanation. Not that anyone cared – as long as she was back (I think it was a smoke break).
All told and including impromptu intermission, she played for about two hours fifteen and though my knees and back thought that was plenty long enough, I’d have happily stayed and listened to her another couple hours more. I can’t speak for any other show on the tour or even the early show, but for this evening, Cat Power was simply amazing. If I’m ever ambivalent about seeing Cat Power live again, it’ll only be because I don’t know how she could top this performance.
And note that while Matador is rereleasing The Greatest next week with three different slipcovers and a lower list price, there are NO bonus materials that would require fans to re-purchase the album. They’re just trying to give the album a second life in retail. But if you do want something new, there’s an exclusive iTunes session available as of yesterday – full details on both these releases and some pre-emptive defense of the re-release here.
Billboard has info about the Sufjan Stevens Christmas box set due out November 21, Songs of Christmas will compile five Christmas records and a stocking full of holiday bonus goodies. More info at Asthmatic Kitty.
And that was a really long review, so that’s it for today. Except for this – Hedgehogs vs McDonalds – and the hedgehogs win. How does something like this become an epidemic?