Until recently, even Cat Power’s most loyal fans probably had to wonder if she’d made the right career choice.
Prior to her current tour, her shows have been more like group-therapy sessions than anything resembling “entertainment.” The poor woman was so clearly uncomfortable on stage — so riddled with either excruciating self-consciousness or garden-variety stage fright — that she frequently experienced on-stage meltdowns, reportedly fleeing the stage entirely on a few occasions.
But usually she just hid behind her bangs, mumbled, and apologized — a lot. She’s been known to turn her back to the audience — to the point that some fans would actually surround her, and pat her on the back, as if trying to nurture her into some kind of performance mode.
Sorry, but that’s not being a fan, that’s just being an enabler. Clearly, the woman needed someone to advise her that maybe, just maybe, she lacked the temperament needed to bare her soul on stage — or even walk onto a stage. It didn’t help that many of her songs — amid small pockets of melodic bliss, at least on You Are Free — were bleak, wispy little constructs that crept along at a dirge-like pace.
Indeed, a writer for Village Voice recently reported that, after sitting through just such a wince-inducing experience back in 2002, he vowed to “never waste another night on a Cat Power show.”
But, to borrow from the headline for that Voice story: “Cat Power is Not Crazy Anymore!” The singer/songwriter, born Chan Marshall, has undergone a transformation. And while her live shows (based on recent reviews) are no longer exercises in self-immolation, she now seems to have channeled her anxieties — or is it neuroses? — into a new stage presence that is equally distracting.
Marshall, who comes to the Grey Eagle on Thursday (she refused all interviews for this tour), recently demonstrated her new performing style to a national audience on Late Night With David Letterman. While her nerves once led her to withdraw into a cocoon, now she translates them into constant motion: On Letterman, she preened and pranced barefoot, doing something that split the difference between a spazzy chicken dance and a high-stepping equestrian strut — moving to an inner rhythm that didn’t seem to bear much relation to the groove the band was putting down. Any moment, we expected her to launch into Jackie Gleason’s old “And awaaaaayy we go” skedaddling stance.
At other recent shows, she’s been making quips about how she is now sober — sometimes just shouting out the word “Sober!” as though a non-sequitur. Now, I’m not a doctor — and unlike Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), I don’t even play one on TV — but from these declarations, it’s not hard to guess that she was previously suffering from depression, and self-medicating her anxieties by drowning them.
Marshall’s latest disc, The Greatest (Matador), is an homage of sorts to the ’70s-style Memphis soul of Al Green, et al. Indeed, she recorded the disc with a bevy of classic-Southern-soul session men, including Teenie Hodges, who played in Green’s band on seminal discs like Let’s Stay Together and I’m Still in Love With You.
For most of her current tour, she’s been fronting a big ensemble dubbed the Memphis Rhythm Band — a marked contrast to those infamous nerve-wracking gigs when she was on stage alone, armed only with an acoustic guitar and her own insecurities.
But the Rhythm Band won’t be in tow at the Grey Eagle — it’s a solo-Cat show — so it’s hard to know which Cat will show up for this one.
Some critics have remarked that Marshall’s indie-pop voice — an alternately frail, dry and creased instrument that is more emotive and expressive than “musical” — might not be a good match for a slinky-soul sound immortalized by a singer like Green, whose voice, after all, was smoother than Italian silk and sweeter than Tupelo honey. That’s a fair assessment. Then again, given that many of Marshall’s songs still address some forlorn scenarios, her voice suits the bleak emotional tone of her newer songs.
On a strictly personal level, it’s comforting to know that, for Marshall, performing is no longer a terrifying, miserable experience. No one (outside of some right-wingers we could mention) wants to see another person suffer. It’s good that her demons no longer haunt her, at least not on stage.
But now we sorta wish she would just cheer down a little. Keep writing songs — but lose the prancing-pony strut.
[Writer and critic Kevin Ransom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Cat Power plays the Grey Eagle (185 Clingman Ave.) at 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 6. $12/$15. 232-5800.