When Chan Marshall rolled into the Commodore for her final show of 2006, it marked the end of a year that saw the singer known as Cat Power turn herself around, both personally and professionally. Last year ushered in her biggest record to date, was punctuated by a stint in rehab that actually worked out, and perhaps most important to the thousand or so people who showed up to listen to her, it brought an end to the infamously bad performances that have plagued her career. The evening wasn’t free of odd moments or Marshall’s “quirky” stage manner, but it just wouldn’t be a Cat Power show without a little of both. The night also marked the final time that she would sing with the Memphis Rhythm Band backing her.
With all due respect to everyone that’s played with Marshall in the past, the Memphis Rhythm Band, led by Al Green co-conspirator Teenie Hodges, is the only collection of musicians to join Chan on tour that lays down tracks to match the soul that oozes from that famous Cat Power croon. And when recreating the songs from The Greatest, a little soul is a required piece of the puzzle. With that in mind, the evening predictably drew heavily on Marshall’s latest, as the assembled players made their way through all but three tracks from her most recent long-player during the main set. There was a brief solo interlude before the ensemble returned to inject that same rhythm and blues into a trio of covers, and with the poise of an old pro, Marshall led her band off stage for the last time. The backing cast was tight without sounding stilted, and loose enough to add a bit of extra flair to the newer numbers, but they lacked the spark that punctuates Chan’s best performances.
If you could say one thing about the “new and improved” Cat Power, it’s that her shows are largely uneventful. There were a few “can I have some more reverb” moments, but by and large the night could be described as predictable. That’s great when compared to her reputation for aborting songs, bursting into tears, or storming off stage, but it still seems like she’s lost something. In the past, when attending one of Chan Marshall’s performances you went hoping you’d avoid a spectacle, but you also knew that if you were lucky, you might end up witnessing something truly awe-inspiring. Now you’re unlikely to get a train wreck, but the calculated lack of spontaneity also means you’re unlikely to see something revelatory either. After a decade of uncertainty, maybe it’s okay to hedge your bets.