Going to see an artist who has had the words “paralyzing stage fright” written next to her name as many times as Cat Power - the stage name of the singer Chan Marshall - can be a perilous proposition.
Will Marshall, who pronounces her first name “Shawn,” make it through the show? How is the 41 year old indie chanteuse with the shadowy, soulful voice coping after she got dumped by that scallywag Giovanni Ribisi and had to cancel a number of shows last fall, including one at the Electric Factory, due to financial trouble and her hospitalization with the facial-swelling condition angioedema?
Did she really not only cut off her signature long dark tresses, but also dye her hair blonde, and fashion it into a Mohawk? And will the self-recorded electro rhythms of last year’s Sun, her first album of new material in six years, translate into a live setting?
The answers to those questions were at least partially revealed Wednesday night at the Factory, in a make-up date for a Cat Power show originally slated for last October. After a recording of Bob Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello” - which, improbably, had the clearest vocal mix of the night, was played as intro music - Marshall followed her band on stage for “The Greatest.“
That title song to the 2006 album that's her best was delivered in a spare, spooky version, slowed to a crawl so as to be nearly unrecognizable. Moody and mysterious, it was the kind of unexpected opening you would expect from Marshall, who did indeed have her blonde hair cut short, but didn’t bother with the Mohawk.
From there Marshall concentrated almost exclusively on Sun, an album whose unironic title lifted the veil of gloom from her music while smartly reinventing its sound. But fronting a four piece band at the Factory that featured Gregg Foreman, the former leader of Philadelphia scuzz-rock band Delta 72, much of the spritely music on Sun was came off tepid in performance.
Part of the problem was the a lack of energy coming from the stage - the keyboard driven band sounded murky and depressive compared to the Teenie Hodges-led Memphis soul crew Marshall toured with for The Greatest. And it was only on the penultimate “Peace and Love,“ in which Foreman got up of his stool and played electric guitar and the video screen flashed with the word "Occupower" that the 80 minute set got the slightest bit rousing.
The larger issue was with the sound mix, which seemed intentionally murky, with Marshall’s remarkable voice rarely front and center. I’m not blaming the warehouse of a room - whose balcony section was curtained off - so much as Marshall’s own perverse efforts to hide in plain sight, a la Dylan, and cloak her voice in gauzy arrangements rather than plainly present the sound everybody came to hear.
Of course, Marshall's awkwardness and unease on stage is part of what makes her intriguing and compelling. You're going to see Cat Power, not Lady Gaga, and you're rooting for a treasured artist formerly crippled by stage fright and substance abuse to pull though, now that she's clean and sober.
And amidst all that, Wednesday's show did have it's gripping moments, as when she crouched and dug into the vocal on "I Don't Blame You" from 2003's You Are Free. And even moreso, when she lit a cigarette and sang an almost unaccompanied version of 1940s Mexican film star Pedro Infante's "Angelitos Negros."
It was as if given such an obscure song selection, and the opportunity to sing it in Spanish rather than English, Marshall was free to really throw herself into the perfromance. At that moment, she was gripping, a true star, and it was hard to take your eyes off. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the evening was pleasantly uneventful, and rather dull.