I’m not entirely sure what happened, but I’m convinced I can’t fully capture it.
Friday evening at the Hawthorne Theater saw one of indie music’s most beloved figures play a an unforgettable two-and-a-half-hour solo set. Most of the attention of late surrounding Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power, has been on newest record, Sun. Perhaps her most upbeat and triumphant album to date, Sun seemed to portray a sturdy and settled Chan Marshall, an audible victory over a dark history of shaky performances, cancelled tours and substance abuse.
On Friday, with little more to accompany her on stage than a piano and a guitar, Cat Power bravely turned herself inside out and exposed whatever it is we music writers have been trying to diagnose her with since the mid-2000s. It was a roughly cut set of fragile original songs, gorgeous covers and scatterbrained bits of songs. It swayed back and forth from raw and pretty to tense and fractured. And while many writers pine for a show like this—wherein there is genuine struggle, audience backlash, an artist seemingly on the brink—at least from a reporting standpoint, it would be selfish and lazy to highlight just the plight.
Which there was. Marshall fidgeted throughout, an awkward dance stemming from supreme stage fright. She changed her mind on songs less than a minute in. She struggled to find chords. She bantered in half-sentence confessions and was at times incoherent. She jumped from topics like milking cows to astrology to her favorite brown lighter. “Are you mad at me?” she asked her sound guy countless times, in between requests for more vocal delay. Tuning and re-tuning her guitar was her own sort of nervous tick. Finally, Marshall grabbed two additional microphones, lassoed them together and sang into three for a good portion of the rest of the set.
Musically, there were priceless moments. Her transition from the Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to “Hate” was seamless. Her rendition of “Bully,” wherein opener Nico Turner joined her on stage, was heartbreakingly sincere. And her live takes on great studio songs like “The Greatest,” “The Moon” and “Metal Heart” were even more bewitching in the flesh. Times like this, Marshall virtually paralyzed the crowd with her enchanting muggy voice. It’s a voice so rich and powerful it’s hard to attach it to this extremely vulnerable persona.
There’s a filmic metaphor that applies to Cat Power. That ever-present scene where the hero is up against the wall trying to diffuse a bomb or remember a password before shit hits the fan. Marshall’s shaky playing style—skimming just a few lines of songs, especially from You Are Free—created a palpable tension in the room. And even though you’ve seen the hero escape trouble like this countless times before, you still find yourself in a sweat, uttering encouraging remarks. And then, with a fluttering vocal maneuver, guttural guitar riff or elegant piano phrase, Marshall would save the world.
Regrettably, a few audience members spoke up at the wrong time. They interrupted Marshall’s soft but immensely powerful act, causing her to abandon entire tracks. Visions of the recent Fiona Apple debacle came to mind, but unlike that show (or so I read), the upset fans here didn’t even pretend to care about Marshall’s health. Instead, they simply wanted louder material, and the need for it apparently outweighed any sort of human decency.
There’s an element of audience guilt at a show like this. Some of the greatest songs come from the darkest human corners, but the process at large is rarely witnessed live. You feel like a stranger—an invader, even. Cat Power has a history of hiding under bands or cover songs or background media. And as much as she might prefer touring behind one-sided glass, I’m grateful to have been invited into a fragile, complicated place she has every right to keep hidden.
This was a troubling show on many levels. Elliott Smith was known for his unpredictable performances. Cat Power’s show was a certain sibling, equal parts brittle beauty and supreme sensitivity. The crowd hung on until the very end—roughly 12:25 am—partly to see what she might do next but more so, I think, to hear that occasional gust of remarkable soul that very few musicians are capable of.