Before a Cat Power show, the question always looms: what sort of shit is Chan Marshall going to pull tonight? To call Ms. Power a volatile stage performer would be like saying that Anne Coulter is merely unpleasant. Typically, Marshall tremblingly hides onstage behind a greasy-hair veil, aborts songs midway through, and generally has the potential to totally suck.
Tremulous, tremendous: Cat Power at Berklee
Last night, June 8, at the Berklee Performance Center could’ve been especially tremulous: it was the first date on a tour rescheduled from last February in support of The Greatest (Matador), that was canceled with a Matador press release citing “health problems” and continuing with the terse none-of-yr-beeswax comment, “Out of respect for Chan’s privacy, we can’t give more detailed information.” For a performer known for “stage fright” — a nice way of describing something we suspect requires monitored meds; see her late-‘90s track “Schizophrenia’s Weighted Me Down” for more info — you had to wonder: would she freak out? Would she cancel at the last minute? Or would she rip open her jeans and show off her pubes like she did for the New Yorker in 2003?
The short answer: the show was downright awesome.
After a fiercely spitting, visually-ugly, but generally kickass opening set from Dexter Romweber Duo (yep, that’s the Dex from Flat Duo Jets), the 12-piece Memphis Rhythm Band took the stage and rolled out an entire instrumental number until Marshall emerged, carrying a pink travel mug and looking like Lady Sovereign’s older sister: side-ponytail (unsmoothed bumps and all), jeans, sneakers.
Marshall can control her breathily gorgeous voice with the ease of a snake-charmer hypnotizing a cobra; meanwhile, she can barely control her own body. While she sings, her gestures are twitchy and nervous, as if to escape herself, ignore the anxiety lapping at her feet, occupy her mind with something other than her insecurities. So for the first six or so songs from The Greatest, she fidgeted like a boozehound in withdrawal. Scratching her neck like her skin was covered in bugs. Coughing. Grabbing the crotch of her pants. Crouching down to tie her shoelaces. Wiping her brow. Snapping. Joining an invisible kickline. Chicken-dancing. Bunny-hopping. Moonwalking. Flinching at the microphone as if it were an open flame. Running away from it to the stage’s shadowy corners during the instrumental measures. Folding up her shirtsleeves like a CEO about to do the dirty work. And while plenty of critics love to say that her mannerisms are more annoying than endearing, here, amid the purple glow and strings and pedal steel and back-up singers and flirting trumpet, Marshall was all at once tremulous, joyous, and downright adorable — like a junior-high spelling bee, but much prettier.
Things did threaten to derail when the Memphis Rhythm Band briefly left Marshall alone onstage. Plopped at the piano, she began the Richard Thompson tune, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” but interrupted herself after a few bars. “I just bob my head up and down, that’s the way I am,” Marshall informed an offstage presence who’d misinterpreted her recurrent nodding for a roadie request. Marshall’s apparent anxiety had ever-so-slightly slipped away, but the broken continuity forced its return. She fudged a few measures on the piano. She chided herself, stopped abruptly. Looking around at the handful of music-stand lights illuminating the stage at the start of “House of the Rising Sun,” she exasperatedly complained, “Can we make it not so bright up here?”