Cat Power underwhelms at Hollywood Palladium
You never know quite what to expect from a Cat Power show. Chan Marshall's fragility has long been part of her appeal; even after a four-year layoff, drama surrounds her like a wraith. She recently canceled her European tour, citing bankruptcy and an auto-immune disease, and reports from recent shows have not inspired confidence. Was her intro music, Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm," an offer or a request?
So it was a surprise when her appearance Thursday night at the Hollywood Palladium got off to a promising start. A relatively prompt 10 minutes after the announced starting time a single guitar traced out a soulful vamp, stretching chords into slow, draggy arpeggios. This lasted a minute or two, until the bass came in, hitting the tonic every four bars. A few minutes later, they were joined by a single piano note.
Marshall moved to center stage, and the sound eventually resolved itself into a glacial rendition of "The Greatest," the title song from arguably her best album, the music hovering on the edge of entropy, a reflection of the song's punch-drunk narrator. As the piece continued, it gradually gained speed and intensity, picking itself off the canvas, turning from a plea of resignation into an affirmation of resilience, its author stalking the stage operatically, shadow boxing, repeating the phrase "so much feeling."
For about 10 minutes, Cat Power was a dynamic performer, that song among the best heard on stage this year. And then the wheels fell off.
Surprisingly, it was not stage fright or a lack of focus that did her in. Although her interactions with the audience would sometimes drift into inanity, Marshall was present and focused, often smiling at the crowd, looking both butch and femme in a grown-out blond Mohawk, black jacket and jeans.
The problems Thursday night were strictly musical. The 90-minute set drew mainly from Sun, her new album and first in six years, yet the material turned ungainly in performance.
Recorded alone at home, using computer-aided beats and thickly layered vocals, the music takes on a kind of lupine grace. But live her band draped lumpily over those beats like a badly tailored suit, and her attempt to use two mics to re-create the recorded harmonies never quite came off; her face contorted in discomfort during a choppy "Cherokee" and the stiffly tribal "Silent Machine," her vocals turning sour and arhythmic.
She gestured to the drummer and keyboard player, trying to find common ground, but most often she slashed her finger across her neck, cutting the songs short. Only when arrangements were cut back did the music improve. Starkly backlit and accompanied only by a guitar, "King Rides By" had a sullen power, and a cover of "Angelitos Negros," sung in Spanish with overly rolled Catalan vowels, posited her as an earthy, modern-day diva in the style of Nina Simone or Cesaria Evora.
But those moments were surrounded by less effective others, such as the klutzy "3,6,9" and "Bully." The evening's finale, a rushed "Ruin," with Marshall tossing out way too many white flowers at its conclusion, felt anticlimactic and underwhelming – a play with all the drama leeched out.