A large portion of a Cat Power show will be given over to declarations of love for our lissome lead feline, Ms. Chan Marshall, and her November 26 performance at San Francisco’s Fillmore was no different. Within moments of her slow, frankly cat-like waltz to the microphone (her backing Memphis Rhythm Band had been cycling through some souped-up blues riffs, to slightly baffled stares, for several minutes), she had already accepted a bouquet of white roses from a man in the front row. Soon after, a female fan would inform her that she was a “sexy mama.”
Marshall handles these moments with shy deference and more respect than she’d have to. The roses were gingerly placed by a floor monitor, then later moved to the piano for safekeeping. A smitten interlocutor was gently informed that it’s actually pronounced “shawn.”
The singer seems to sense that it matters how she treats us, and not just because she’s a polite Southerner and it’s good to be nice to your fans. It starts with the notion that her concerts aren’t so much top-down musical performances as interactive revues. At the Fillmore, this tone was set in the first three songs of the show: “The Greatest,” “Living Proof” and “Lived in Bars” (the best three from her year-old, enigmatically Cassius Clay-themed LP). Marshall didn’t miss a note of her vocals, all delivered in the full-bodied, wide-mouthed whisper that’s like watching a hunk of coal whittle a perfect diamond. She came close, though. Two-stepping about the stage, kneeling to squeeze hands in the front row, she seemed at times to be apologizing that she had to get back to the mike for the chorus. When members of her backing nonet — a loose-limbed bunch that made up in good cheer what they shrugged off in organization — went on riffing sprees, she’d turn and mimic their playing style. The “air violin” was the highlight.
With some artists the kindergarten games would have been irritating. With Marshall they were hopelessly endearing. They were Chan winking at what was happening onstage, being less a performer than a fellow listener who liked “House of the Rising Sun” and would play it if she was in the mood. (She was.) And the flip side of that social contract, which was certainly a performance in its own right but one the audience was happy to sign, was that she was our pal and had to be nice when we told her we loved her.
This is the same basic approach Marshall has taken for years, what in a less sober and more stage-frighted era could have been summed up in a more succinct phrase: bad concerts. But gone are the days when unstaged rapport at a Cat Power show meant Chan talking about how much she hated her songs, and then, if we were lucky, sticking around to play a few covers. This time around, our heroine isn’t so beatific she can’t stick to a set list. And as this show progressed, she showed she’d not only planned ahead but gotten clever. After an outstanding, disco-fied rollick on the Stones’ “Satisfaction” (a cover she’s long sung, but usually as a molasses murmur), she and her cohorts launched a turn on Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.” It was another wink in our direction, and any sloppiness around the edges was forgiven on the spot.
Of course, while were glad to see some newfound responsibility, there was an old Chan who would have been missed if she hadn’t shown up. And indeed she did, as the show hit its downslope after the band had been sent backstage. Here’s the good news: Chan Marshall will still, without prompting, sit down at the piano bench, light the world’s sexiest cigarette, and tell an entirely nonsensical story about dogs.
“The Greatest” MP3: http://www.matadorrecords.com/mpeg/cat_power/The%20Greatest.mp3