Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Uneasy Listening: Cat Power at the Forum

I’ve been wondering what to write about this show, given that my entire experience of the night was soured by a particularly thoughtless couple. Having reserved our tickets somewhat late in the day, John Kell ( and I settled for unreserved seating upstairs. Neither of us had quite accounted for the number of early arrivals (in fact, I expected most of the seated crowd to spend the support slots in the bar), so getting a seat proved more of a mission than expected. Having secured a severely uncomfortable pew (not kind on the lower spine), I felt unduly sympathetic to a couple audacious enough to ask us to save seats for them. Having done this, I did not expect in a million years that they would proceed to talk and giggle (not even quietly, but quite obtrusively) CONSTANTLY THROUGHOUT THE ENTIRE PERFORMANCE. They barely even stopped to breathe. Now I can accept that there are different schools of thought on talking at gigs, but my own position on this is clear: no reasonable person would contemplate talking like that through a classical concert, an intimate jazz gig, a movie or a play. What exactly is the difference about a rock concert? Why pay £20 plus to hold a conversation when you could just as easily hold it for the price of a couple of drinks in a bar, café or pub? Having paid from my own hard earned cash, I was not best pleased about their conduct. In the unlikely event that you’re reading this – next time pay more courtesy to people kind enough to secure you a seat (it was so busy they would have been standing at the very top of the balcony otherwise).

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the rockabilly duo support act, who were highly entertaining – basically Revered Horton Heat meeting the White Stripes in a dark alley. No bad thing.

Cat Power has something of a reputation as a difficult performer, an image intimately connected with her battles with alcoholism and depression. Her solo shows have seen her so crippled with fear that she’s been unable to perform, or has simply forgotten her own songs. She’s now performing with a stable band (still in support of her outstanding album ‘The Greatest’, released early last year), Dirty Delta Blues, and has seemingly defeated most of her demons. So why then was this show still so difficult?

She may no longer be such a loose canon, but Chan Marshall still seems a profoundly uncomfortable performer, relentlessly pacing up and down the stage and preferring not to face the audience directly. Her voice, a vulnerable and sensitive instrument on record, is rather more uncompromising live, and she frequently renders her own material incomprehensible tonight, intentionally slurring the words. Whilst she projects confidently, she ignores most of the nuances in the recorded versions. It’s frequently fascinating, but rarely pretty. On record, she sounds positively seductive – live, she appears awkward and unpredictable.

The band, although much acclaimed, are not equals to the legendary Hi label session band that played on ‘The Greatest’. They all seem impressive musicians, but in a relatively straightforward and unadventurous way. They don’t give the songs enough room to breathe, and are frequently just too loud for the rapturous textures Marshall originally concocted.

True to her reputation, Marshall handles a number of covers, most of them major works in the soul and pop canon – James Brown’s ‘Lost Someone’, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, Smokey Robinson’s ‘The Tracks of My Tears’, Willie Nelson’s ‘Crazy’ and Dan Penn’s ‘Dark End Of The Street’ among them. Identifying the material proves a challenge, given Marshall’s reluctance to enunciate and the unnecessary reverb added to her voice. She veers so far from the established melodies, not in itself a crime, but she seems somehow uncertain in her extemporising, and her interpretations have little shape or direction. ‘The Tracks of My Tears’ arguably works best, simply because she transforms it radically from elaborately arranged ballad into full-force Northern Soul stomp.

The show gets more comfortable and meaningful as it progresses (if anything it seems to be about pushing the songs to their utmost extremes), but there’s a lingering sense of missed opportunity at the end in spite of this. I think Marshall has plenty of talent and originality – but, in spite of the successful 'Dusty in Memphis' vibe of ‘The Greatest’, she may not entirely be at home with ‘the greatest soul singer in the world’ tag that her band bestows on her.

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