Cat Power -- better known as Chan Marshall and a Revolving Cast of Other Folks -- played a bizarrely unbalanced show last night at the Ogden. When it was good, it was transformative. When it was bad, it was hard not to feel a little sympathetic for the other musicians on stage. This was Marshall at her most cathartic -- which is to say, showmanship occasionally took a back seat to self-indulgence.
For a sold-out show that had folks standing outside the venue pleading for tickets, the Ogden's innards didn't feel quite full. Maybe it was the subdued nature of a Cat Power audience, anticipating a quiet evening where Marshall would strum a guitar while belting out indie rock slowburn anthems. Oh, those folks would have been so mistaken. This woman brought forth the Rock.
The set did start with a slow-picked dirge, but it was only temporary. "The Greatest" -- a brilliant, desert island-worthy, truth-in-advertising song title if ever there was one -- began in slow strums unlike what appears on the 2006 album of the same name. "Once... I... wanted to be... the greatesssssst...," Marshall sang, drawing out every word slow and decisively.
This was like hearing a record at half-speed, and she seemed to revel in it. After what seemed like an eternity later, the song sped up, built energy and morphed into one of those apocalyptic Godspeed You! Black Emperor jams. While folks hoping to hear the more softspoken side of Cat Power were likely let down, the band's intensity was as palpable as anything in Marshall's back catalog -- unplugged or otherwise.
Marshall, 41 years old as of this week (Happy Birthday!), zigzagged across the stage in black jeans and a light-blue denim jacket. Her bleached-blonde hair, short and spiked, made the singer damn near unrecognizable from her earlier eras. Maybe it's some indication of her recent (and much publicized) period of personal upheaval.
"Cherokee," the lead track from Cat Power's newish album, Sun, snapped the audience out of the droney trance "The Greatest" had created. This was the most traditional of guitar-driven pop songs, full of multi-layered vocal flourishes and a sing-songy chorus. These two songs set fans up for what would become the theme of the night: completely fucked-up, reworked versions of Marshall's old stuff and straightforward renditions of newer material.
Another Sun song, "Human Being," came soon after. Marshall, singing into two microphones, performed flawlessly but showed no interest in interacting with either the audience or her fellow musicians. She seemed alone in the room, and it just so happened there was a band and a few hundred fans in there with her. Odd? Sure. Out of character for a woman whose early-career antics had folks wondering if they should be feeling guilty for watching her have an emotional breakdown on stage? No.
Last night's show would feature none of those blog-worthy freakouts, though. She played it safe, even if that meant for a mediocre concert. "King Rides By," a 1996 Cat Power song re-released in 2011, fit squarely with the newer material. It was upbeat for the notably downbeat singer -- try to make it all the way through Myra Lee without having your happy mood deflated -- and it set the audience up for a very unexpected turn in the night's agenda.
About thirty minutes into the set, just when I began thinking, "Dear God, even the Wallflowers show was better than this," came a flurry of songs that reminded us doubters in the room why Marshall was indeed The Greatest. "3, 6, 9," from Sun, was played with passion and conviction, filling the room with all the soul that had previously been sorely lacking from the set. "Nothing But Time" did the same trick, swinging like hell and causing instant amnesia for those who'd thought Marshall had lost her way.
"Peace and Love" and "Sitting on a Ruin" ended the set, which, like the few previous songs, showed the band with a glut of energy unseen for the first half of the concert. Marshall banged on a snare drum, did some breakdance moves, laughed and waved good-bye.
And then -- it was over. Marshall re-emerged alone onstage, house lights now on, to toss T-shirts into the crowd. Hip-hop blared through the house speakers. Anyone hoping for an encore, however, would've been disappointed.
Personal Bias: Cat Power falls into a long line of bands I once loved (see: My Morning Jacket, Magnetic Fields) whose recent output has me reassessing our relationship. Sun has been off my iPod since a week after I got the album.
Random Detail: There was a girl in a crushed-velvet onesie dancing around with her baby. RANDOM.
By the Way: Chan Marshall's drummer looked like a younger Chan Marshall. Chan Marshall, meanwhile, looked like a young Annie Lennox. What's this all mean?