In a recent New Yorker article, Samuel Hynes recalls a line Ezra Pound says to him when they happen upon each other in a park: "It's difficult hanging on to the truth while admitting error." It stings especially so as a critic, where your opined words must remain sharp and 'right,' rigid and affixed on a page that floats about in an influx world, where perception necessarily must give and be pliant, ever-changing. I wasn't the only one underwhelmed by Cat Power's The Greatest, finding it to be too shorn of its edges. Where were the jags, the bared edges, the emotional upheavals and artistic crises that flow about her so readily, her destabilized persona suddenly a part of her presentation?
You'd have to be crazy to go see her live though, or at least a sucker for disappointment. If you know anything about her proclivity to melt and disintegrate before her fawning audience, to flub every song, to drop lines, to forget chord changes, to painfully abort the same song ten times in a row, she is already a legend. Snickers no doubt followed the sudden announcement earlier this year that she had cancelled all of her tour dates with the Memphis band due to "health issues." And even with the tour re-scheduled (which was good news for me, as my piece finally ran out in Seattle), I can't help but cop to sniggering in the audience as well. Her reputation preceding her and all that, I still couldn't turn down free tickets to her show at Town Hall.
My friend and I stood outside the doors as the band started up, downing our mixed drinks in the lobby quickly and wondering aloud why we couldn't hear Cat Power at all as the band continued to blare and throb. Only some three songs in did Chan pad across the stage barefoot to sing about how she once wanted to be "the greatest." Resigned to mortality, she flexed, showing off sculpted arms as bodily example, as living proof. That said, her voice was thin and watery compared to the belts of her backing singers, taking some three songs before the sound guy reached some sort of compromise, finally highlighting the fuzz and smoke inherent in her throat while turning down the piquant power of the ladies near the back curtain.
By that time of sonic balance, I was hooked, intoxicated by the pulse of the twelve-piece band and their deft though loose grip, all musical forms understood as they moved with her, accentuating her awkward hip shakes with a more bold and knowing shimmy and slink, which in turn emboldened her, comforted her. The group comprised everyone from pedal steel player Doug Easley and Teenie Hodges to three strings and two horns, two singers. What sounded so polished to the point of listlessness on record brightened under the stage lights. The opulence was undeniable live, and as Chan piped out midway through, she was alive as well. "Sober! Happy!" she intoned, making hand gestures and hopping about like a bunny. Or a teen girl infatuated with "Some Girls" and chicken-walking like Mick before her make-up mirror. She also continually made gestures as to a queef (not sure what to make of that).
When the band finally dissolved and disappeared during "Where is My Love?" (its heartbreaking plaint bittersweet live), Cat Power tiptoed back out in a tight white dress to melt Sandy Denny's "Who Know Where the Time Goes" into a spot-on impression of (who else) Nina Simone's own 1959 Town Hall concert (a poster announces daughter Simone's own impression is forthcoming) with "Wild is the Wind." Perhaps to prove her pianistic powers are crescent, she lets ring into the void between each note her own take on "Dreams" with Elvis's melancholic "Blue Moon" perfectly interloped, the ghost of dead American astronauts alive and a-glow inside her. She even undercuts her own prowess with an off-the-cuff version of "Hit the Road, Jack" that fizzles. The only song of the past is the last, "I Don't Blame You." So she does understand just how she makes us both doubt and believe, making us grapple with such truths and errors with her every breath.