See the girl with the stage fright. Standing up there giving it all her might. She got caught in the spotlight. But when it comes to the end, she wants to do it all over again.
And the band played on. After two Memphis jams from Teenie Hodges and his Hi House Rhythm Band – and a 12-strong accompaniment means a lotta rhythm – it was anybody’s guess whether Chan Marshall had in fact left the building. Which, given the labyrinthine dimensions of London’s Barbican centre, isn’t as easy as it sounds.
But as the chamber strings of The Greatest grind down the tempo, here she is. Just in time too. Teenie and his super-session dozen could be the Million Dollar Quartet for all it means to this crowd. They’re here for the main attraction. Cat Power and her songs of brutal sympathies and delicate tragedies, strange comforts and unsettling familiarities. A paradox of virtue and sly sensuality, as mighty as aphrodite and as frail as Icarus without his Factor 10.
With just baby-blue nail polish for shoes – I guess there’s a band to finance – Chan skips lightly, not quite like a ballerina, but like a slightly-tipsy girl who’s become homecoming queen by some weird default.
The khaki overshirt and black one-piece, complete with door-knocker medallion are a stylist-commission away from the ungroomed squatter-shop gear that Chan sported last year at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. The Joni Mitchell-straight tresses look to have been treated to salon-only cosmetics, and have just a touch of Suzi Quatro, the patron-saint of ladyrockers. In fact, in a very, very deep, spiritual-only way, this correspondent declares Chan to be looking very, very cute. Which, no doubt, will please her no end.
With band to show-off, the set has something of a verbatim feel. Chan’s arms move around, uncertain without the security-blankets of piano and guitar. At times, stressing the changes and licks there is just a curious echo of Cocker in the gesturing.(Joe, not Jarvis). Thankfully, this is kept to a minimum, but still one still hopes for a Cat Power run through of Delta Lady.
It isn’t until Empty Shell that the script first begins to deviate. Cat and the band bring Bakersfield to “London’s Ugliest Building”, afore shifting due east to honky-tonk and Nashville’d-up The Islands, replete with square-dancing and steel guitar. Stuffed into those country-pie bookends are a re-emphasised via kick-drum The Moon and a warmly welcomed Willie (oo-er, missus).
And there began the change. The much truncated Willie was the first switch in intensity. Chan’s nervous gaiety threatened to dissipate, as though the premature applause made her think twice of the worth of the song. Later, solo at the piano, she chooses to perform I Don’t Blame You one of the few original songs outside The Greatest to make the cut.
I Don’t Blame You, the lead-in on 2003’s You Are Free, is all cross-section and ambivalence. The travails of the song’s protagonist delineate the performer’s simultaneous need for attention and distance. When the crowd clap in Willie, Chan looks anxious to make the song her own again, but of course it slips away from her. Willie’s tale of love gone right in the face of adversity and cynicism inevitably hatching other versions and interpretations in the imagination of others, finding a new life beyond her.
The desire for community and the right of solitude may best sum up Cat Power’s practice of running through other people’s songs. After treating us to her ‘British’ accent – as close to Hayley Mills as every other American’s English accent – Chan summons up the ghost of Sandy Denny‘s Who Knows Where The Time Goes, its ‘deserted shores’ forming an archipelago with her own topography of sea-staring and beached desires
A much improved run-through of Wild Is The Wind ends abruptly with ‘When you kiss me…I’m distracted…” Chan struggles, once again, with the baleful heat of the lighting rig. Chan Marshall struggling with the spotlight is such a trojan horse of gift of a metaphor that it would be impolite not to mention it.
But no matter how distracted Chan is, the air of redemption is palpable through every half-boogie and every playfully lowered-octave of her surprisingly flexible voice. Whatever ‘health issues’ caused the original tour to be postponed look to be a thing of the past. To nail the point home , the blankness of Hate is switched back on itself, the suicidal edge of its grim tag-line reversed, hinting at a paradise regained.
Long, long after the house-lights have beckoned tube-time, long after Teenie and co. almost turn Love And Communication into the Zep’s Kashmir, Cat still haunts the safety curtain, miming taking tea in a doff of the cap to British sensibilities. There’s one time for an impromptu Tracks Of My Tears and then its over.
Where does all this time go, anyhow?