The long messages under the instagram pictures came a day or two before Cat Power’s November 2nd gig in Vancouver at the Vogue Theatre.
Chan Marshall was broke, she said, and couldn’t afford to take her show – complete with angry gorilla graphics and giant lasers – on the road to Europe. She was sick, too, with angioedema, an illness that causes rapid swelling in mucuous membranes and which seemed to be attacking her throat, windpipes and all things essential to a singer’s existence. She was going to cancel the tour. Then the next day she said she wasn’t. Six days after
Vancouver, she did.
“Yeah, she’s been writing some weird stuff”, a friend on Twitter lamented, but it wasn’t really that unusual – in the cannon of Cat Power’s life, “weird stuff” has always been there. In 2006, she checked herself into a hospital following a breakdown. Or rather, a lot of breakdowns. Gigs were precarious things for her; she’d come on stage Xanaxed and fall apart through songs, slurring, swearing or crying. Ever seen a Cat Power breakdown gig? Yeah, you and everyone else.
But that was then, and if we’re talking about Chan being weird, that still happens now. Girl’s an oddball. But by talking about her being weird, we’re not focusing on the THING. The thing that everyone’s gathered for: Cat Power’s voice. It’s the that that is so, so strong when it seems every other aspect of Chan Marshall isn’t. It’s the thing that’s made her old albums compelling and makes her new album SUN remarkable.
Tonight at the Vogue, though, we’ve not yet got to the thing and we’re atill stuck at the weird. She starts 40 minutes late. Her minions place stuff around her mic: burning incense, a glass bottle of Vos water, a metal bottle of something else, a cup of tea, gods know what else.
She starts with the “Greatest“, all piano and strings and quiet shuffle, from the same-titled album released in 2006, the same year she lost her shit. Is this a sign of things to come? The backing group – Delta 72’s Gregg Foreman, Adeline Fargler, Allana Kalaba, and Nico Turner – are slick but Chan is awkward as hell. She alternates between beaming wide smiles and deer-caught-in-the-headlights whilst coughing, and fighting for breaths. She compulsively tugs or smooths out her trousers, plugs in or pulls out her in-ear monitors, or picks between the various potions at her feet. “Cherokee” sounds amazing but it seems Chan’s struggling a bit through “Silent Machine” and “Human Being.” You get the feeling, a friend there says, that at any given moment she’s going to walk off stage and just keep going.
But she doesn’t. And something else is creeping through, like a stubborn weed fighting for light between cracks of pavement. It’s Chan Marshall’s will. And it’s that thing, the voice. “Sun” and “King Rides By” sound lovely and Chan manages, for a few moments, to look so happy, so relaxed and so utterly thrilled to be there, that she stops fidgeting and beams at all the fans in the front rows and balconies. She stalks the stage and looks people right in the eyes.
And the fans shower her with gifts – flowers, which she hands back to the fans after the encore; mittens, which she tucks into her back pocket; and a sign which she manages to autograph without breaking from singing. A burly dude hands her his ballcap, she puts it on, sings a bar, gives it back. And during the heart-wrenching Roberta Flack cover of “Anjelitos Negros”, when a girl in the audience apparently goes faint, Chan asks the audience to make space so the girl can sit down, and she calls for security. She reaches down for the bottle of Vos and gets it sent over to the girl. WHILE STILL SINGING.
But then there’s “Back in the Days”…it’s so haunting…and she’s lost again. ”Beat down like a freak down town/When nobody came on the bad days/How much medicine you wanna do you in/Pharmaceuticals/Coochie coochie /Always thought I’d be dead in a grave” she sings, and you take in a sharp breath. It’s kind of eerie. At this point, YOU could pretty much walk off, and never come back. But you don’t. And it’s good you don’t, because you’re there for “Ruin”. a song bigger and bolder than the room, and which ends the set. It’s been utterly compelling.
Chan Marshall, you’re weird. And beautiful. And weirdly beautiful. Protect that thing you’ve got, the voice. Because the tour, the angry laser gorilla and the rest of us can wait. \m/
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