Cat Power at the Vic

(This review is also on the web site for the Southtown Star newspaper.)

Cat Power, the singer also known as Chan Marshall, was once notorious for abandoning songs or entire concerts before she was halfway through finishing them.
When she played at Chicago’s Vic Theatre two years ago, she gave an erratic performance, with some brilliant moments and lots of awkward silences. She was back at the same venue Sunday night (Feb. 10), but this time she exerted complete mastery over the music.

Although Cat Power is a strong songwriter in her own right, she focuses on cover tunes on her new album, “Jukebox,” and those songs dominated Sunday’s show. She chose a diverse lot of songs, ranging all the way from the Frank Sinatra hit “New York, New York” to Joni Mitchell’s meditative “Blue.”

Marshall showed a jazz singer’s sense of timing, letting her words drop behind the beat or run ahead of it. She almost always sings in a breathy tone, but she knows how to sing in a way that’s strong and breathy at the same time, pulling the microphone away from her face on the more forceful notes.

Freed from playing guitar or piano, Marshall seemed to feel an uninhibited freedom to roam the stage with her peculiar pantomime-like dance moves. She often crouched down low as she sang, making gestures with her hands that sometimes acted out the words of the songs – or just reflected one of her fleeting whims. She held her hands in prayer, she flicked her fingers with a fish-like motion, she pretended she was clicking a remote control, and she circled a finger next to her head (the universal sign for “crazy”).

One of the reasons Marshall probably felt so free on Sunday was the excellent band acting as her safety net. Billed as Dirty Delta Blues, the four-piece group plays a bluesy, rootsy style of rock music that evokes the days when Bob Dylan first went electric or the Rolling Stones recorded “Exile on Main Street.” The band also knows how to play simmering, quiet grooves — perfect for Cat Power’s ballads.

In addition to the tracks from “Jukebox,” Marshall and the band indulged themselves in several other cover songs, including George Jones’ “Making Believe,” Patsy Cline’s “I’ve Got Your Picture” and James Carr’s “Dark End of the Street.” It was only late in the concert that fans got a chance to hear Cat Power do some of her own songs, including the new track “Song to Bobby” — apparently, a letter of sorts to Bob Dylan — and a few songs from her popular 2006 release “The Greatest.”

Cat Power may have mastered the personal demons that caused trouble at her past concerts, but she still refuses to play by all of the rules. Instead of doing the usual routine of leaving and coming back for an encore, she remained onstage as the band left, spent several minutes tossing T-shirts into the crowd, basked in the applause and then disappeared.

See my photos of Cat Power and opening act Appaloosa.

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