Monday, October 22nd, 2012
Cat Power, Willis Earl Beal, and Xray Eyeballs at The Kool Haus in Toronto
Frank YangEvery good thing you’ve heard about Cat Power live is true, and also a lie; the same goes for every bad thing. The reputation that Chan Marshall gained as a fragile, erratic performer over the first decade or so of her career may have seemed overstated to mythic proportions, but few have made great efforts to dispute it. I can’t speak from experience – though a modest fan since Moon Pix, I’d avoided seeing her in concert because of that reputation and reports from the Toronto shows I’d missed in that time seemed to bear out that I hadn’t missed much.
So it was with great surprise and pleasure that my first two Cat Power shows in Fall 2006 – an intimate solo show at Lee’s Palace and a full band performance at The Phoenix, both in support of The Greatest, were sublime experiences. The former had a few awkward moments though they were far outnumbered by the great ones, but the latter, powered by the Memphis Rhythm Band, was about as perfect as you could get. A subsequent show at the 2007 Rogers Picnic was far less assured – though she got the benefit of the doubt as that whole day was just weird – and the last time I saw her at Matador at 21, she again sounded great; any reservations were more about the continued absence of new material than the performance itself. So I was optimistic for her first Toronto show since early 2008 this past Saturday night, since it was coming in support of her game-changing and excellent new album Sun; surely the sass and confidence that went into crafting that record would translate live? It’d be a couple of support acts before we’d find out.
Leadoff hitters Xray Eyeballs may have hailed from Brooklyn, but their psychedelic garage rock sound was decidedly west coast in lineage. With guitarist O.J. San Felipe and bassist Carly Rabalais trading off lead vocals while laying down beds of fuzzy guitars, simple percussion, and whirring synths, their set wasn’t sophisticated but not amateurish, either. It wasn’t a new sound by any stretch nor was their take on it overly memorable, but decent enough for passing a half hour. Though a note to San Felipe – they’re called Straploks and you should look into them.
I’d heard many good things about Chicago’s Willis Earl Beal prior to his being a late but welcome addition as support for this tour – that he was a poet, a soul-singer, a visual artist, an eccentric, a philosopher, and a hell of a performer – but despite him having come through town twice already in support of his lauded debut Acousmatic Sorcery, I hadn’t had a chance to explore further and his being a late addition as support for this leg of the tour was welcome news. He took the stage not with a band but a couple of mannequins, and instead literally played to backing tapes – he had a reel-to-reel tape machine set up behind him, providing the musical backing for him to sing over.
And really, even if he’d brought a full orchestra with him, it’s unlikely anyone would have noticed as it was nigh impossible to take your eyes off of him once he got going. With a huge voice that could go from a soulfully supple to hitting like a sack of gravel, he sang like an avatar of manic desperation while pacing the stage and turning everything around him – the mic stand, the flag that had covered his tape machine, a folding chair, his clothes – into a performance prop and closing out with mic twirls whilst doing The Running Man. Using an artist as singular as Tom Waits as a reference point for any other performer is usually unwise as it’s far too high a bar for mortals to measure against, but for Willis Earl Beal? It’s both stylistically accurate and speaks to the man’s potential. Pretty much amazing.
That the intro music for Cat Power’s set was Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm” – it played twice, once when they band was scheduled to take the stage and again fifteen minutes later when they actually did – was telling. Just as Dylan has earled a reputation as a difficult live act, frequently inverting and rearranging his classic songs to the point of being unrecognizable, so to has Marshall taken to treating her songbook as raw material for crafting something new rather than as canon to be performed respectfully. Also unrecognizable was Marshall herself, following her band onstage in leather jacket and the short, spiky, blonde hairdo debuted in her video for “Cherokee” further punkified with shaved sides. That song opened the show, but rather than stay in character from the video and battle zombies, she instead did battle with the incense burning on stage, constantly fussing with it while singing and then turning her attention to the two mics set up for her – indistinguishable to the eye and ear – through “Sun”, and then the mic stands on “3, 6, 9”. To her credit, she mostly sounded alright while this was going on, if not as in key or articulate as one would like, but it was distracting to watch.
As has been typical for the past few years, Marshall eschewed guitar duties to concentrate on singing – and fussing – leaving her four-piece backing band to the music, and theirs was not an easy task. They had to give the songs enough structure so as to stay intact and relatively recognizable, yet allow Marshall the space to roam and improvise as she was wont to do. And this was where I saw where the crucial difference between this show and the Greatest show would be – in that setting, Marshall had to rein herself in to meet the supremely tight and professional standards of that veteran outfit, but here she was in charge and it was her players’ job to follow her, wherever she felt like going. While they stuck to the Sun material, things stayed fairly steady and onstage eccentrics aside – the incense/mic/stand fiddling and rambling banter persisted – the audience remained onside.
The middle portion of the set was probably more trying. A reading of the unreleased “Bully” found Marshall in her best voice of the evening to that point as being accompanied only by piano, being distracted wasn’t really an option, and from that she went into an almost operatic, dramatically backlit performance of Mexican icon Pedro Infante’s “Angelitos Negros” (a Jukebox bonus track), and then a half-speed, Moon Pix-skeletal version of “The Greatest” that traded almost all melody for a steadily building, almost ominous dynamic – an interesting interpretation, but perhaps not what an audience who’d been waiting over 10 minutes for something remotely familiar wanted.
It having been a half-decade since she’d toured an album of original material through town, most were probably hoping to hear more catalog material but given how it was being presented, they were probably thankful whenever the set returned to Sun and more familiar if recent sounds. When Marshall finally strapped on a guitar for “Silent Machine”, it was both invigorating and frustrating – for those four minutes, her Danelectro was like a lightning rod that channeled everything the band could be into that slinky, sexy, slide riff and they were tight and focused like they’d not been the rest of the show. And of course, while that was the only song that Marshall would play an instrument and the indisputable high point of the show, they did raise their game for a powerful “Nothin’ But Time” and “Peace and Love”. Lest the momentum keep going, however, they went back to You Are Free for a sprawling, deconstructed “I Don’t Blame You”, before again pulling it together for a strong “Ruin”. For the show’s close of I think “Rambling (Wo)man” – I can’t be sure – a fan handed Marshall a bouquet of flowers which she spend most of the song distributing amongst her band and then tossing, flower by flower, into the audience. And continuing in a giving theme, gave away a t-shirt and all the lyrics sheets she had on stage before requesting – and receiving – a fan’s Charlie Chaplin t-shirt.
It was a nice moment and close to a show that was, even to die-hard fans and apologists, uneven and oft frustrating. Though Marshall seemed in good spirits throughout and any performance where she doesn’t halt a song midway through to complain about the monitors or just walk right off is a positive one, for as long as she’s been doing this she should be much better. She can be and has been. But perhaps for an artist for whom, “is she alright?” is always a legitimate question – a brace of cancelled promotional appearances before the start of the tour was cause for concern, as was her tweet from the inside of an ambulance the afternoon of the show – perhaps overt fan service by way of her song selections and arrangements is too much to ask. Perhaps it’s enough that she’s again making great records, and that your odds of seeing a good show – while still obviously not even – are much better than they once were. At least she’s trying.
Photos: Cat Power, Willis Earl Beal, Xray Eyeballs @ The Kool Haus – October 20, 2012
MP3: Cat Power – “Ruin”
MP3: Cat Power – “Cherokee”
MP3: Cat Power – “Manhattan”
MP3: Cat Power – “Metal Heart”
MP3: Cat Power – “The Greatest”
MP3: Cat Power – “He-War”
MP3: Cat Power – “Nude As The News”
MP3: Willis Earl Beal – “Monotony”
MP3: Willis Earl Beal – “Blue Escape”
MP3: Willis Earl Beal – “White Noise”
MP3: Xray Eyeballs – “Crystal”
MP3: Xray Eyeballs – “Egyptian Magician”
Video: Cat Power – “Cherokee”
Video: Cat Power – “King Rides By”
Video: Cat Power – “Living Proof”
Video: Cat Power – “Lived In Bars”
Video: Cat Power – “He War”
Video: Cat Power – “Crossbones Style”
Video: Willis Earl Beal – “Monotony”
Video: Xray Eyeballs – “X”
Video: Xray Eyeballs – “Crystal”
Sufjan Stevens has made one of the songs from his upcoming Silver & Gold Christmas song box set available for download. The set’s not out until November 13 so think of it like that one gift that you were allowed to open on Christmas Eve. It’s just like that.