Cat Power and the Memphis Rhythm Band
"It's a dream come true, period. 'Cause I'm sober now...I've never been sober, you know." Chan (pronounced Shaun) Marshall, the artist commonly known as Cat Power, is poolside in Los Angeles awaiting the start of her fall tour, a jaunt that will take her from New York to Mexico City, London to Zurich and Dallas to Austin, where she'll play the Austin City Limits Festival and record an episode of the PBS show. Along the way she'll be backed by the Memphis Rhythm Band, a formidable combo made up of musicians cherry-picked from the studio bands of Stax and Hi Records, the labels that brought the world Otis Redding and Al Green, respectively.
While it's true that Marshall has never hurt for notable backing musicians (Sonic Youth's Steve Shelley, Eddie Vedder and instrumental rockers Dirty Three have all lent their talents to her endeavors), the members of the Memphis Rhythm Band could leave even the most famous indie-rockers in awe. "I was daring my record label," she says, talking about how the band that convened to record her sixth album (and take it on the road) came to be. "They were gettin' mad at me because it was taking me so long to record the album." A friend from that label, Matador Records, pressed the issue one day as they dined before a show in London, asking Marshall to name her dream band. A couple of e-mails later, Marshall was booked for studio time in Memphis, slated to record with the legendary Hodges brothers, the men responsible for the slinky, baby-makin' grooves on soul classics such as "Let's Stay Together" and "I Can't Stand the Rain."
The resulting record, The Greatest, is one of the finest moments in Cat Power's already impressive discography, a collection of soft-focus, white soul gems reminiscent of albums such as Dusty in Memphis and Tapestry. Far removed from the spare and haunting sound she cultivated on records such as Moon Pix and You Are Free, the album isn't so much a departure as a coming-out party for the artist, a mesmerizing singer whose heartbreaking songs have finally received the rich accompaniment they deserve.
After canceling most of her early 2006 dates for health reasons, Marshall and the Memphis Rhythm Band finally brought The Greatest to concert stages in March. Many didn't know what to expect--for years Cat Power shows have consisted of Marshall alone with a guitar or piano, barely holding herself together (and often failing), her hair in her face, her patient audience either bored or mesmerized by the spectacle of it all. But the person that emerged in March is a different Cat altogether, a confident, playful performer that bears little resemblance to the Marshall of old. Her newfound sobriety can't hurt, but one has to wonder how the company she keeps has changed her stage persona. After all, with a band such as hers, how could she not rise to the occasion?
"I wanted them because they have the sound that I love...laid-back," Marshall says. But while her new band mates might epitomize the sound of leisure, onstage the Memphis Rhythm Band is all business. "They've been around the block," she says. "They're really pros." And thanks to them, so is she.
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