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March 17, 2008 | by  | in Music |
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Cat Power at Retro

Auckland, Tuesday 4th March

Pre-gig, I was not a die-hard fan of Cat Power. I bought tickets because I was feeling affluent, I felt like a trip to Auckland, and I quite liked what I’d heard of her music. Don’t get me wrong. It’s obvious this lady from Atlanta is a gifted singer-songwriter. Nevertheless, I’d never fully engaged with her sparse arrangements and sprawling vocal style. Post-gig, I’m happy to eat humble pie: Marshall is the most compelling performer it’s been my privilege to see live.

I’d braced myself for a night of Bath House-esque steaminess. Turns out a sold out crowd at Retro (previously known as the Powerstation) is cool and fragrant in comparison. My neighbours in third-row centre gave me plenty of elbow room and were all shorter than average. Even so, I’d happily have paid more and been at a smaller venue. Full credit to Marshall and the Dirty Delta Blues for their surprisingly intimate performance, to the point where Marshall and her organ player scored a couple of ciggies from the front row during a leisurely mid-set jam.

Opening song ‘Don’t Explain,’ originally released by Billie Holiday, set a high benchmark for the gig to follow. Marshall’s voice is exceptional both in range and control, going from near hiss to full strength within a few bars. Vocal dynamic shifts were complemented perfectly by the Dirty Delta Blues: the amalgamation of Dirty Three’s Jim White (drums), the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Judah Bauer (guitar), the Delta 72’s Gregg Foreman (bass) and Lizard Music’s Erik Paparazzi (organ). All four are more than capable of holding a stage on their own, and it was good to see each given literal time in the spotlight rather than being left in Marshall’s shadow.

Marshall stuck to recently released covers album Jukebox for most of her set, moving fluidly through such classics as ‘Woman Left Lonely’ (Janis Joplin), ‘New York, New York,’ and ‘Ramblin’ Man’ (Hank Williams). For me the stand out track was ‘Silver Stallion’ (the Highwaymen), with Paparazzi joining Marshall on vocals as she pony-pranced across the stage to Bauer’s twanging, sliding guitar.

As a covers artist, I’ll readily hail Chan Marshall as successor to folk legend Karen Dalton. That said, her performance reached new heights with the Jukebox version of ‘Metal Heart,’ a rhymically reworked ‘Lived in Bars’ and the sweetly impassioned ode to Bob Dylan ‘Song for Bobby.’ Marshall introduced the latter as ‘Song for Chris Knox,’ with a nod to the Flying Nun godfather who was presumably lurking somewhere at the back.

I’m told Cat Power performances of a few years back were notoriously scatty and that Marshall alternated between severe stage fright and alcohol-induced walkouts. Maybe, but the woman I saw in Auckland was confident, vivacious and highly professional. She mimed as much as sang her songs, plucking apples from trees/manna from heaven in ‘Lord, Help the Poor and Needy’ (Jessie May Hemphill) and directing venomous loathing into empty space with ‘She’s Got You’ (Patsy Cline). However, there was a hint of more fragile days in her occasionally crossed arms and re-buttoning/unbuttoning of her shirt. The interplay between Marshall, Bauer and Paparazzi seemed to play a large part in keeping her grounded, with the majority of songs directed to Paparazzi at stage-left. The big post-gig question became whether or not she was sober. One friend swore to me she’d seen an alcoholic glass being sipped; another claimed the gig as proof that bands don’t need to be wasted to put on an intense and memorable show. For me it’s irrelevant. From start to finish, whether singing straight or not, Cat Power had me in the palm of her hand.

As an aside, local folk-pop trio Teacups played an opening set that was cute and catchy as hell. Chelsea Metcalf, familiar from her cameo appearance with Broken Social Scene at the Bath House, has a rare voice that is much more suited to her own songs. I would have preferred more music and less cutesy banter, but this was more than made up for by tight three-part vocals and the excellent musicianship of Talita Setyady (double bass/harmonica/percussion) and Elizabeth Stokes (guitar/ukulele). Check ‘em out!

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Nina Fowler (BA), former Salient feature writer, is excited about Salient '10.

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