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Cat Power

The Orpheum

Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Earlier tonight, seated at The Orpheum, I couldn’t help but think of an old Toothpaste for Dinner comic. This particular installment of the Web series featured the author sitting at a desk writing a letter, which read: “Dear Chan Marshall of Cat Power, SHUT UP. Love, Drew.”

Well, I wasn’t even close to telling her to be quiet. Her sound was spot on all evening, and the spooky tumbleweed drag of her Dirty Delta Blues band reassembled even her most melancholy originals so that they went straight along with the bluesy numbers off her new covers record, Jukebox. The music was great, no problems there, other than slight disappointment about choice of material (c’mon, just play “He War”!). My complaint letter, unlike Drew’s, might read something like this:

“Dear Chan Marshall of Cat Power, STAND STILL. Love, Sarah.”

I’m seriously feeling nostalgic for Cat Power shows I never went to. Like the one where she mooned the audience. Or when she used to be too shy to finish sets, and then cussed out the audience? At the very least, I know she used to play instruments.

But the Cat Power of today is a totally different animal (ha, ha) than that of … well, pre-The Greatest, her seventh album. It’s a change you can spot in her physical appearance, which is now sleek and svelte as her namesake mammal, and a change you can hear in her repertoire, which has become increasingly blues and ballad driven.

Objectively putting my own loud-guitar preferences aside, these changes are generally positive, because they mean Marshall is healthy, calm and in a place where she can create and tour without relying on alcohol, et cetera, to keep her going. She was polite to the audience, kept her composure throughout the tight set, and her husky voice sang beautifully throughout uniform but appropriate covers ranging from Bob Dylan to James Brown.

Before Marshall herself sauntered onto stage, Dirty Delta Blues was playing a sparsely arranged slow desert swagger; two piano chords, a simple bass line, guitar harmonics, and brushed drums led into Billie Holiday cover “Don’t Explain.” Marshall entered snapping her fingers, hair neatly pulled back into a ponytail. She was all dressed up in a black button up, a throw-over vest, black fingerless motorcycle gloves, white shoes and skin-tight black jeans, which she pulled up continuously throughout the night. It was the only sign of human imperfection in a far-too-flawless chanteuse.

When she sang, “hush now, don’t explain,” the band really did hush. She strutted around the stage, which she commanded without a hint of admitted shyness. She seemed to channel the King of Pop; gloves on hand, she practically moonwalked across the stage on more than one occasion. She knew all the moves. She swiveled her heels, hopped from the hips, and interpretively moved her arms in some pseudo-sign language along with the lyrics. This dancing went on for the entire show, and it was driving me crazy. Some of the crowd — at Marshall’s instructions — stood up and lit their lighters. What is this? Are people fully buying this? Where are the mood swings? Why is she so smiley and friendly? Who are you, Cat Power?

And then, the thought: maybe this stage personality, this sideways dancer, is really just as nervous as Cat Power-on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown minus the Jack Daniel’s and Xanax. Maybe her too cool exterior covers up for someone who still feels the heartbreak she sings about and she’s channeling all the performance anxiety into physical motion. Well, if I tell myself it’s organic, I guess I can deal. Dance on, Chan, dance on.