The tradition of taking someone else’s work and putting your own spin on it is a storied one and history is littered with examples of rote duplication and insanely creative re-inventions. And of course there is a wide spectrum between those two poles. Chan Marshall (nom du mic as Cat Power) has had a pretty strong batting average when tackling these sorts of efforts, not only lending her gorgeous vocals to propel someone else’s words but also choosing some lesser known gems from the past. A few months ago she released her third volume of cover songs, appropriately titled Covers.
As before, traditional songs (“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels“) bumped shoulders with readings of contemporary ones (the record starts with a gorgeous reading of Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion“) along with some choices ranging from the sublime (Jackson Browne’s impressively emotive “These Days,” hard to believe that he was only sixteen when he wrote it) and the pedestrian. (Marshall’s version is actually quite lovely and fairly unrecognizable from Seger’s turgid ballad; too bad it was scratched from tonight’s set list).
Erik Paparazzi was a familiar face in her band, manning keyboards and occasional guitar duties; the main guitar playing was done by Henry Munson, who also played with opening act Arsun. Alianna Kalaba played a very lithe and sympathetic style that perfectly matched the material, using mallets and brushes as much as drumsticks.
For me, the allure of Cat Power’s music has been Marshall’s voice. It’s an incredibly beautiful and emotive sound, sometimes teetering on the edge of control and flecked with flaws and cracks and all the things that make us human. She left off the absolutely heartbreaking bit of “Satisfaction,” where the song fades out with “I’m trying, I’m trying.” Jagger’s and Richards’ focus was all about the brashness and confidence of a young man trying to figure it his role in life. Marshall turned that song on its head and made it about confusion and self-doubt and changed up the cadence from her recorded version as well.
A self-penned composition also got completely reworked; I’ve listened to “Metal Heart” hundreds of times and didn’t recognize it until some of the lyrics poked through. Maybe her time learning Dylan songs has rubbed off on her live shows. “Unhate” was an early transition point where she shook off some of her nervousness and moved confidently around the darkened stage, clutching two mics in her hand. The incessant blast of air conditioning was affecting her voice and she finally persuaded the club’s staff to find the controls and turn it off right around the time she sang “the moon is not only ice cold/It is here to stay.”
After a bit of a weird interlude where she had the house lights brought up so she could see the crowd’s faces and relay that she’s working on a book about comedy, she played a very old Rowland S Howard song called “Shivers” which dates back to Nick Cave’s earliest band and oddly was also penned when Howard was only sixteen years old. Some weighty material and Marshall nailed effortlessly.
“The Greatest” has a similar thread of vulnerability and resignation and those themes are fairly constant in Cat Power’s songs and performances. It’s OK to not have all the answers, to always come out on top. The night closed with Marshall singing an old standard and collecting the various set lists that were taped to the stage floor, sauntering over to the edge of the stage to hand them to the fervent followers at the front and singing without a microphone, her honeyed and charcoal tones floating softly in the air. Realizing she’d run out of set lists before getting to the stage right side, she handed her mug to a fan and walked off the stage. You never know what you’re going to get at a Cat Power show, and tonight for someone it was a tea mug.
Arsun opened the evening with a slightly unusual lineup; the eponymous singer was flanked by an inventive bass player on his right and Munson to his left. Dressed in a sharp shit with a white t shirt, Arsun’s music inhabited the space of pre-motorcycle crash Dylan. Insistent acoustic guitar strumming matched his powerful voice, and Munson lent melody and texture to the songs. The songs were pretty strong aside from the common thread of just kinda… ending. They fizzled out when there should have been a more definite conclusion. Maybe recruiting a drummer to flesh out the lineup could help with resolving the songs.