Cat Power, The Memphis Rythym

Ben Gilbert 01/11/2006

After a series of cancelled tours, a well-publicised alcohol addiction, and a reputation for performative melt downs, it was with great euphoria twinged with a little trepidation that myself and my merry band trudged through Camden lock towards The Roundhouse to see the inimitable Chan Marshall.

After a fifteen minute jam from the band, the lady stage monikered Cat Power bounced out for a scintillating version of the haunting eponymous track of new album The Greatest, albeit with almost comic juxtaposition of her physical miming along to the songs and with a cockney introduction I'm not
sure if the crowd find affectionate or irritating - it's that killer drop of the chord where her voice cascades over all the existing notes that takes a pause on the words “for the later parade” that does it for me and the crowd
cheery and truculent in banter goes graveyard still as the bustling instruments cavort to the surface again in a soft jazzy serenade with a collective gasp, the song has stayed in my head note for note days since.

The set provided a very tidy account in the first half of the new material, including a sparkling rendition of “The Moon,” a quiet and elegant interlude of “Where Is My Love,” which Chan makes initially seem fatuous more than touching with her strange yet compelling frolicking and gestures like she
was signifying nursery tots for “wheels on the bus“- but somehow it amounts as it rolls along unrelentingly for a more endearing escapade, the emotive panache encapsulated by this newfound physicality lights up the smiles around me faster than the flashes can go off, no more stumbling with an air of dishevelled discomfort, the whole thing unfurls warm and welcoming as a spectacle, and she's hitting everything well. Chan converts me on the soulful delivery of “Willie” which cataclysms nicely beyond the song I remembered with scant fondness from the album, and we're treated to a
surprisingly ass-shaking “Could We”. There's an infectious beat to everything, she's full of mischief and the dour husky tones of her gorgeously fragile vocal work does nothing to contradict an air of celebration to even the darkest affairs that lurk within the lyrical impetus.

I'm not an enormous fan of her lyrics but her poise, her dance, her stunning voice stand Obelisk tall in the ensemble, everything's very understated as she drapes a guitar a friend made her with a soft smile around her neck and the awkwardness vanishes after a flurry of mumbled words before starting to peer out more from the trademark fringe.

But it wouldn't be a Chan Marshall concert without the odd Oscar The Grouch gripe in the second half about acoustics [how the hell she manages to bounce the notes to us off the concrete in The Roundhouse I'll never know] and her own
performance, the audience cheerily calling out “****ing hell Chan, it's perfect,” though she's not cracking jokes at a voracious rate as she can, the audience laugh at a quip on her Fortnum & Mason's herbal tea [it's swirling steamy exhalations from her piano to give the romantic illusion her very voice is smouldering the air] which she's promoting to us because she's “between record contracts.” There's something cosy now about her whole demeanour compared to two years ago, belying an enthralling sensuality that rears its heads with frequent struts and shimmies of the hips that her voice births, but that frail eggshell tone which is the best description I've ever heard for it, and that track record you never expect to see presented so voluptuously in every stage characteristic. She's having fun I'll warrant and so are we.

The Memphis Rhythm band seems to split opinion prior to the show, there's little refuting their astonishing jazz soul funk rock out escapades are tighter than Joan Rivers' facial muscles after Botox and a chunky ham sandwich, before Chan scampers into the picture, mingling an air of the rockier parts of CA Quintet with the more explosive moments of Funkadelic, but of course they sometimes demand a different temperament from that fabulous voice, and obfuscate it - evidenced by an interesting and enjoyable conclusion of a medley of songs with a quick-fire visceral Satisfaction [I Can't Get No], a far cry from the mellow molasses sensuality enriched cover version on The Covers Record.

However ultimately it only serves to display the gratuitously rock and roll aspects of her vocal range, and largely opinion seemed to sway in its favour amongst the onlookers as it's hushed discussed by bars and craning necks, the confidence and interplay and saucy askew glances to her band fed succour to the performance. A miracle the woman has gone so long in this industry without an agent, one wonders whether she has buckled to Matador's pressure on The Greatest with its more broad contemporary pop style and big
ensembles, but the upbeat tempo of the shows are more what I've come to associate with Afro jazz rock of a Nomo than Chan and the instrumental arrangements seem to be a welcome direction for a woman more accustomed to
Pink Moon era Drake like simplicity- they give her a scintillating depth.

A few reviewers apparently cite her fondness for covers with confusion or derision, but Cat Power fans will know how nervous her own material makes her, and any fans of the original works in the audience can surely be in little doubt as to how interesting and evocative these unfurling alternative takes were. Wild Is The Wind on piano is heartbreaking and superior to Bowie and Simone accounts [I don't say that lightly, they're both incredible takes in my eyes, yet this one hits between them like the heavyweight she mimes in
the curtain raiser], her “that's what we call tongue in cheek” version of Hit The Road Jack with traditional inclusion of her own name in reference to her well addictions is spellbinding, almost bluesy, and the acapella version of The Tracks Of My Tears by Smokey Robinson and The Miracles featuring the
whole band appropriately marks the breaking up of the party, followed by a Bob Dylan cover of Paths To Victory for the encore which is quite something to behold. Howevter, it's perhaps Love And Communication and Crossbow Style from the exceptional Moon Pix that renders further intake of breath necessary.

Even in the flawed venue of the Roundhouse, concrete doing its best to haemorrhage the majesty, her sound is ridiculously beautiful and quite unlike anything else, her voice sounds always a whisker away in fragility from disintegrating under its own weight like an Indiana Jones rope bridge, but there's never less than a note pitch perfect and it adds to a very well
marshalled pathos, the antithesis of stumbling shabby charm that Chan used to personify, I cant find fault.

All in all, whatever the artist's own concerns, it's hypnotic and flawless work to the onlooker.

(photo courtesy of Rahav Segev 1999)