Cat Power hit the stage at the Phoenix last night for her third Toronto show in less than a year. It was Torontoist’s first time seeing her live and after having waited a few years for the privilege, and hearing wonderful things about her shows of late, we were slightly let down.
But only slightly, and mostly for reasons beyond Chan Marshall’s control. With the Dirty Delta Blues Band, featuring Judah Bauer of Blues Explosion, backing her up, she opened with the gorgeous title track from her latest album, The Greatest. The song is a melancholy masterpiece, and last night’s version more than did it justice.
There are a few main types of live vocalists: lazy singers who don’t care how they sound, because they know people will show up anyway (Billy Corgan, we’re looking your direction), those who try but just don’t have it without the trusty help of Pro Tools and those lucky, gifted few who sound even better live than on wax. From the moment she started singing, it was evident that Cat Power is in the last group. Evident—but not quite clear, and that was the main problem last night.
The promise that the stellar opening song offered was squandered, thanks to a shoddy mix. Her voice, with its perfect balance of smoky grit and crystal clarity, was buried underneath the band. All night, we were straining to hear her and could only make out lyrics in small patches here and there.
It was an incredible shame, because Marshall has a knack for lyrics. She’s a woman who’s been to the edge and back, and her new record is a heartbreaking testament to that (“You’re supposed to have the answer/You’re supposed to have living proof/Well, I am your answer I am living,” she croons on “Living Proof”). While her past shows have been legendary for their unpredictability and messiness—Marshall would often break down mid-show or abandon a song halfway through if she thought it wasn’t going well—the only faint hint of that last night was a couple of odd transitions between songs. Replacing the old, unsure Chan was a confident, charismatic performer who danced gracefully around the stage and sang with conviction.
The evening was a bluesy affair, with Marshall running through cover songs and tracks from The Greatest, which departed stylistically from her earlier releases. It would have been nice to balance the sound with the spare, stripped-down emotion of older songs like “Evolution” or “Free,” though her performance of “The Moon” did help to fill that void, with its direct, heart-wrenching melody. Another high point was an uptempo cover of The Miracles’ hit “The Tracks Of My Tears”, which highlighted the fact that Marshall can hold her own among the giants of soul. As the crowd cheered in vain for an encore, it was obvious they agreed with her bandmate’s assertion that she’s “perhaps the greatest soul singer in the world today.” If only her voice had been given the prominence it deserved.
Photo by Word Freak.