Cat Power is one of those artists I was really into for a time, and whose music I admire, but I haven’t been actively listening to lately. I never had the chance to see her live, however, so I didn’t hesitate to buy tickets for her show at the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz when they went on sale several months ago. Since relatively few bands I want to see come to Santa Cruz, I feel it is especially important to support artists I like when they do come to town. And since Patti Smith once praised the “legendary” acoustics of the Rio (as reported by my wife) I always feel like maybe I’ll have a mystical experience. (Music does sound good at the Rio, but I don’t know if it’s transcendently better than another venue.)
Cat Power is the stage name of Chan (pronounced “Shawn”) Marshall. I will use these monikers interchangeably when referring to the artist, but when referring to the person, will use Chan Marshall, or simple Chan.
The only Cat Power album I have is Moon Pix, her critically acclaimed “breakthrough” third record. I was really into it for a while, with it’s starkly poetic lyrics, celestial acoustic guitar picking, and the hauntingly beautiful voice. I would go see her on the basis of that album alone, though she has a half dozen others that are also well-regarded.
My wife consented to join me for the show, even though it was a Monday night. We had dinner in the (very good) taqueria next door to the Rio. There were already folks lining up to get in almost an hour before the doors opened. I was glad to see a good turnout for Chan. The audience was about 80% female, which I wasn’t expecting, but perhaps not surprising.
The opening band was Jade, formerly from the Magnetic Zeros, a band Dawn is into. Jade played acoustic 6-string and 12-string, and has a beautiful voice. She had long straight brown hair and a long, hippy dress. She alluded to some kind of controversy in her split from her former band, which we looked up on our phones, and I will not go in to here. She played about five or six songs, all of which I liked, and she was done.
After a good long wait, the lights went down and Cat Power took the stage. She wore black slacks and a jacket over a white button-down shirt, with a black tie. She had the familiar bangs and long dark tresses.
Cat Power’s performance was amazing. She can write catchy rock songs, for example He War or Ruin, but she didn’t play any of those. I sensed a desire to express herself on her terms, and not pander to “facile” catchiness. Also, she had no backup band, which probably would have been necessary for rock. All the songs were very slow – accompanied on her guitar or piano. She used two mics, and a lot of echo, which made her already whisky smooth voice sound even more otherworldly. I only recognized two or three songs. I think the second song was from Moon Pix. Later she covered Satisfaction by the Stones, in a slow syncopated rhythm which was very effective. And towards the end of the show, accompanying herself on piano, she played The Greatest.
She would play two or three songs in a row without stopping, so it was hard to even know when to clap. She would whisper something to the audience – “hi” or “thanks for coming out”. At one point she was fussing with her two mic setup for 20 seconds and she said “I know this looks like OCD but it’s not. Believe me, I would know (laughs).” She did really warm up to us, though, by the end. She would start riffing on some thought, and then have a hard time finishing it. As she got ready to sing what I think turned out to be her last song she got people to call out names various country artists like “Reba” “Emmylou” “Dolly” “Cher!”. She did a brief Cher impression(!) and then did a hilarious riff about Winona Ryder pronouncing her esses very sibilantly. Chan then proceeded to do a Winona impression which was pretty darned hilarious.
But all kidding aside, it was quite a satisfying concert, and I’m glad I went. Her voice and musicianship are impressive, and her instinct to let the songs unfold with an unhurried pace was spot on. Chan gives each note space, and each word hangs in the air, momentarily suspended. A really impressive and compelling performance.