Cat Power’s show at Mill City Night was a study in tension and release—or, rather, what happens when a sense of unease is left to smolder and smoke instead of channeling it into any point of catharsis or relief.
For fans who follow Cat Power’s Chan Marshall on Instagram and Twitter, the anxiety began about an hour before she was scheduled to take the stage, when she published an all-caps screed saying she may have to cancel the European leg of her tour to deal with both bankruptcy and a health issue called angioedema. An excerpt:
I HAVE NOT THROWN IN ANY TOWEL, I AM TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT BEST I CAN DO. HEART BROKEN. WORKED SO HARD. GOT SICK DAY AFTER “SUN” CAME OUT & BEEN STRUGGLING TO KEEP ALL POINTS OF ME IN EQUILIBRIUM : MIND, SPIRIT, BODY HEALTHY CENTERED & GROUNDED.
A long pause between an unengaging opening set by Guy Blakeslee of the Entrance Band and the start of Cat Power’s show also seemed to put the modest-sized crowd on edge, as did the suspense of dimming the lights playing Bob Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello” from start to finish while a stagehand lit incense and arranged setlists and water on the stage.
Finally, Marshall’s four backing musicians emerged, and opening song “Cherokee” off her latest Sun sounded full and strong, with dramatic lighting and cloud projections enhancing the mood. Marshall came out dressed in a leather biker jacket with her hair shorn into a bleach-blond Mohawk, tucking her chin to her chest and performing most of the first song with her eyes closed.
She seemed dissatisfied throughout “Cherokee,” eyeing the sound technician at the side of the stage and switching back and forth between two microphones despite the fact that it all sounded fine over the PA. In the second song, she turned her eye toward the crowd and quickly spotted a photographer at the front of the room, causing her to frown and shake her head in discomfort. She scanned the crowd and noticed more photographers, then became increasingly upset and forced the band to stop the show all together.
“Get out, get them out,” she said, this time pointing at my photographer, Ben Clark, who was wearing a photo badge that indicated he had been approved to cover the show by her tour management. “What does his pass say?” she inquired, stepping to the edge of the stage and muttering as she motioned for him to be ushered out.
Marshall refused to continue until at least three of the credentialed photographers not only stowed their cameras but were completely out of her sight, and seemed irked by their presence for the next few songs. “I’m here for you, I’m not here for them,” she told the crowd at one point, while a few moments later she paused to mumble something about the “press telling lies.”
The tension from that disruption lingered for quite a while as Marshall peered out into the crowd suspiciously during each song, scanning the balcony for signs of cameras. The band, too, seemed to be overcompensating for the awkwardness by playing loudly over her melodies. It wasn’t until the lights were lowered for a stripped-down cover of Pedro Infante’s “Angelitos Negros,” a traditional tune made famous in the late-’60s by Roberta Flack and a B-side from Marshall’s 2008 covers album Jukebox, that she seemed to find some peace and refocus the attention on her mesmerizing voice.
Much of Cat Power’s set focused around Sun and her new electronics-enhanced pop sound, but it was during the more musically sparse moments that the audience had the opportunity to submerge themselves in the depths of her boundless voice. “The Greatest” offered the most crowd-pleasing compromise between her sparer early work and her more layered new sound, starting off with an almost unrecognizable, deconstructed rendition of the melody and then building into a complex and enthralling full-band arrangement. Other new songs fared poorer with the chatty crowd, who started to dissipate as the set wore on.
A second interruption—this time, a fan passing out near the front of the floor—caused Marshall to end another song early, motioning for security to respond and even passing the fan her own glass bottle of water. The fan recovered quickly and the show progressed, but that moment of genuine concern helped to humanize Marshall a bit, as did another moment toward the end of the set where a stagehand brought out white roses for to toss out into the crowd and Marshall decided against it after realizing they had thorns. She also made a point to praise the Midwest, saying we’re like “really smart Southern people,” whatever that was supposed to mean about the South and us.
Ending on another single from Sun, the piano-driven “Ruin,” Marshall seemed eager to make more heartfelt connections with the crowd, making eye contact with fans in all corners of the room. She even leaned down to autograph a fan’s album from stage and hung around after the song was finished to smile and wave awkwardly, hesitant to leave as the house lights came up. For all the unnerving moments that perforated her set, it seemed Marshall had finally started enjoying herself on stage—it was just a pity that she didn’t get there until the night was over.