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More power to her

By Maxwell Price

Section: Arts

February 15, 2008

dc02150806.jpgCritics who review Cat Power concerts are often compelled to eschew descriptions of her musical interpretations in favor of her enigmatic personality. Fortunately, after a performance Friday night at the Orpheum Theater there appears no reason to choose.

Fans and journalists alike are undoubtedly familiar with Cat Power’s (aka Chan Marshall’s) tumultuous personal life and the resulting emotional havoc that often spilled into her live shows. Some praised her raw sincerity while other lambasted her unprofessional sloppiness.

Those days now belong to the past, however, with a revitalized Marshall poised to conquer the indie music scene. Moreover, her persona has virtually turned inside out, with the post-Cobain navel gazing of her early years given way to the kind of exuberant whimsy you might expect from a band like New Pornographers.

Strutting and preening across the stage, flirting with the band, and serenading dancing girls in the first row, Marshall displayed remarkable showmanship. (Although my friend insisted that prowling about the stage was part of her feline shtick, I was more inclined to notice equine tendencies as she galloped and kicked her way through the performance.)

With a voice somewhere between a folksy croon and a smoky, soulful moan, Marshall often evokes an unlikely offspring of Jewel and Macy Gray. Her ethereal tone could easily blend into an ambient drone like labelmate Georgia Hubley (of indie legends, Yo La Tengo) but Marshall’s articulation is too carefully crafted to let this happen.

The majority of her set consisted of material from her new covers album, Jukebox. George Jackson’s “Aretha, Sing for Me,” a Motown blues boogie tune fueled by churning organ was a clear standout. Marshall made the song her own with a sassy warble that Aretha Franklin herself would appreciate.

Longing and desire have always been Marshall’s preferred emotional territory and her beautifully understated version of Lee Clayton’s “Silver Stallion” was no exception. Backed by spectral slide guitar wails, her inflection was the vocal equivalent of a squint that wryly twists itself into a wink.

The graveyard Delta blues of “Lord, Help the Poor and Needy” was another winner, with Marshall’s ebbing and flowing wail punctuated by falsetto sighs.

Nevertheless, the Jukebox material failed to reach the high standard set by her aptly titled 2006 album, The Greatest. Backed by the Memphis Rhythm Band, that record documented Marshall’s Nashville Skyline-esque rediscovery of her Southern roots.

She saved these tunes for the end of the performance, weaving several of them, including the doleful title track into an unforgettable encore medley. Feeding off of the audience’s enthusiasm, Marshall infused tunes like “Willie” with soulful flair.

The four-piece band provided utilitarian support for Chan’s interpretations, although its penchant for hyperbolic dynamics and bombastic choruses occasionally overshadowed her voice. The organ squalls in “Woman Left Lonely,” for example, drowned Marshall’s ornamented phrasing.

A shambolic version of “Where is My Love” filled with tremolo guitar and schizophrenic drumming was another mercifully short misstep.

Nevertheless, it was easy to forgive these flaws when they were followed by such sublimely expressive melodies as “Song to Bobby.” Marshall’s plaintive ode to Dylan was more evocative of Springsteen as she poured her soul out over gently rolling piano chords.

The most memorable aspect of the performance, however, was Marshall’s indomitable joie de vivre. “I once was lost, but now I’m found,” she wails on “Metal Heart,” and even a cynical rock journalist can’t help but believe her.

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