Fans of Cat Power have a difficult time reconciling themselves with her live show. Her eleven-year career has generated volumes of schizophrenic concert anecdotes. Past performances have been spectacles of alcoholism, anxiety and breakdowns. But they’ve also been theatres for tender, achingly beautiful music, sung with the disarming voice only Chan Marshall has.
And so a certain ambiguity hangs over anyone on their way to see her. You can never be quite sure which Cat Power you’re going to get. Some condemn Marshall for what she’s been known to front on stage, finding her style of non-performance a betrayal. They’re searching for her songs amongst half-played, nerve-crippled attempts. Others seem to have almost a voyeuristic attitude towards Marshall. They wouldn’t entirely mind witnessing one of her infamous train-wrecks. They want to see just how tragic it can be.
At her Vancouver show on a Sunday afternoon, an eager, all-ages crowd received the lucid Cat Power. This is probably due in no small part to her recently established sobriety. All eyes narrowed onto the drink she carried on stage: tea. She greeted the crowd with a smile and, after a pause for her typically confusing guitar tuning, strummed into The Greatest’s “Love and Communication.”
Her voice was striking; a full croon, flushed with reverb and blue, deceivingly too expansive a sound to emerge from the small woman, perched with her old electric guitar. The simplicity of her finger-picking arrangements was given ample hollow space to echo and resonate through the still audience.
While playing piano, Marshall had her back to most of the crowd, her face only visible as a reflection in the polished black of the instrument. This left the majority with only the sounds to entertain, and the performance was clearly moving enough to overcome her essentially shrouded presence.
Unsurprisingly, she stopped several songs mid-way to tweak the sound. The audience accommodated the pauses, seemingly not wanting to tamper with what was an elated performance. During “I Don’t Blame You,” Marshall stopped midway, requested a change, and then repeated the verse with, “You wanted to hear that sound/But you didn’t want to play…” which left the air a little tense. But it became clear that this was a Cat Power that truly wanted to be there.
After an a cappella rendition of one of her father’s songs, with the whole of Richard’s on Richards snapping along, Marshall left us in smiles, holding her thumbs and index fingers up to form a heart. This was a Cat Power show, lacking the graphic imagery of her past, instead aiming for a higher plane, something less sympathetic and more empowered. You may not have heard this, but you should see her. She plays her songs wonderfully.