07 February 2007

Review: Cat Power

Hiro Ballroom, 5 February 2007

So, as I was saying... I caught Cat Power on Monday night at Hiro Ballroom. The room is situated under the Maritime Hotel and is completely Japanese/Asian in its decoration scheme. The stage juts out into the floor which is a perfect size for a few hundred with raised sections with tables, etc. I am really looking forward to returning to this venue for more intimate shows like this.

I was lucky enough to snag a parking spot directly across the street because it was a night that gives wind chill a bad name -- bitter, bitter cold to go along with a line out the door to get in. There seemed to be a haphazard method to getting people inside, but the folks running the show there seemed to be doing their best and gave off a refreshing friendly vibe to go along with their urban-hippie appearances. Once inside, most everyone opted to sit on the floor which made things cozy, if not a little tight for space. Of course, I had the luck of some hard-core standers in front of me, so it was achy-feet for me. There was an opener, Tan or Boil who probably played his sleepy, whiny, singer/songwriter/two-chord finger-picked guitar for 20 minutes tops. Can't recommend steering clear of this guy enough. That's all I got to say about that. Unfortunately, this short set made way for at least an hour of wait time before the main event started up. This was made worse by announcements saying 15 minutes til she was taking the stage when it ended up being 40 and similar misinformation from there on in. What can you do?

I had very little idea of what to expect, I've never seen Cat Power before and really have only listened to her newest, The Greatest. So, when she took the stage, I was a bit taken aback by her total package: her look, her demeanor, her presence... all of it was a bit jarring. Describing her stage persona is a bit difficult but enduring it is just as tough -- it took a while for me to sort of adjust my bearings to her. She's got kind of this grating, white-trash boozehound thing going on. I don't know if she was drunk or what, but the first ten minutes I thought maybe she was going to fall off the stage she seemed so tipsy. She came out with some sort of iced Starbucks drink (although it easily could have been something else) and smoking a cigarette, the first of what would have been at least a pack for the evening. To hear her talk with her raspy semi-drawl and her somewhat gawky movement from one side of the stage to another was to smell the residue of thousands of cigarettes smoked on her breath. Not too attractive. After a while, I finally was able to sum it all up with the notion that Cat Power is just not that feminine. She was wearing a denim shirt buttoned up to her neck and pants that rode low on her torso with the effect of making her body look incredibly awkward. Her banter was of the "I don't give a damn" variety, sassy jokes which worked their way around the spectrum in whom they might offend and a witty repartee that wasn't nearly as witty or even entertaining as she probably found herself.

If I dwell too much on everything but the music, it's because this was all in pretty stark contrast to the songs and her voice. Sure, that raspiness is still there, but if you close your eyes while she's singing you're confronted with beauty, sexiness, command and the dilemma of which is the true "Cat Power." The set itself was nothing short of a marathon -- when I left midway through what was billed as the "last song" it was over two hours after she had taken the stage. Two hours filled with dozens of songs, dozens of cigarettes (many of them toked on once or twice and then flicked haphazardly at willing recipients sitting on the floor in the crowd) and dozens of individual moments of wonderful music.

The night split into a few different sections. The first part was with a guitar player, Matt somethingorather, seated in accompaniment and Ms. Power strolling around at the edge of the stage like some demystified diva at the end of her career. This section was punctuated with a certain bluesiness in timbre, a timbre that reached its climax when the guy who took my ticket on the way in was invited on stage to blow some harmonica for a couple of tunes. That was pretty cool. The cover of "Tracks of My Tears" that she did with just the guitar behind her was even cooler -- the absolute knockout highlight of the night. There were a bunch of covers of a wide range of background and each of them was drawn out and redefined by that voice. This Smokey Robinson staple was completely reimagined to a sullen, bluesy miracle. There were highlights in there, but the Matt the accompanying guitar player section was the weakest of the night -- partly because it allowed her to meander around the stage and highlighted all those things that are annoying about her.

Once she gave him the pass to go backstage and have a smoke, things seemed to open up. The next two portions of the night featured self-accompaniment on piano and then guitar and this sort of focused the Cat Power effort and the music she made here was strong from top to bottom. Even the anecdotes and offensive jokes became more endearing as the night went on -- the crowd seemed to be more accustomed to her gesticulations by then, like finally enjoying the water in a swimming pool which seemed way too uncomfortably cold when they first jumped in. In there were a bunch of tunes off of The Greatest, which came across perfectly in this setting, particularly the title track. Playing solo allowed her to kind of ad lib through a lot of the songs, reworking them in real time, stopping midway to interject something obnoxious or maybe even actually funny for once, and even flowing songs together in weird sandwiches and segues. When she hopped on guitar, it made me wonder why she bothered employing someone else to pull that duty, because she was more than serviceable in the six-string capacity (as she was on piano, I should add).

I was really happy to hear a bunch of covers throughout the night. It seems like so many artists, especially from the Pitchfork crowd, are reticent to throw covers into their sets. It makes no sense to me, but Cat Power doesn't have that problem whatsoever. This middle section was highlighted by a couple, particularly Otis Redding's "Remember Me" and a wicked version of "House of the Rising Sun" which prompted an anecdote about the Bob Dylan tribute show in the city a few months back.

My initial guess for a solo set would have been one hour, but that came and went without even a tap on the brakes. The more time went on, the more she loosened up in both her playing and her blabbering, and this, in turn, loosened up the crowd nicely, prompting conversations back and forth with audience members, who all were "pigeons" to her... a term she seemed to interchange for "fuckers." She'd ask for requests, get a handful and then ignore them in true rock star fashion. The whole thing was a wonderfully subdued spectacle. She'd return to some requests later, with one, "Lived In Bars" being another real highlight. She'd returned to the piano by this point and played the tune and then kind of stretched it out, segueing it into the old standard "Blue Moon" and then a couple other tunes (which I can't for the life of me remember right now, should really write these reviews right away or start taking notes...) making it all sound like one seamless entity with a professionals perfection.

1 comment:

Whit said...

good review! - this is the first time I've followed a link that you posted at genrefree (I'm that lazy). I'll follow them more often.