Do you want to know if Chan Marshall imploded last night at South Side Music Hall?
The line to get in the place spills out of the long alley in front of the door and into the industrial blacktop that surrounds the complex. The crowd is whoever: pretty people and people who look more like me, people arm-in-arm and people on their own. Young and old. That makes some sense: Cat Power has touched far-flung corners of culture. She has produced strange masterpieces and moderate hits; she has appeared in movies and tabloids and French fashion magazines.
At 10 p.m., with maybe 700 people milling around the big room, the lights go down and "Shelter From the Storm" blares from the PA. Mass hysteria from those parked against the stage, and from the shadows emerges a four-piece band and, at length, Chan herself. Even those who came just to talk to their friends are compelled to stare in awe. She is equal to her mystique.
Let's quickly follow her to this point, starting with one night in the fall of 1997 where she had a very vivid nightmare and feverishly wrote the singular Moon Pix. She ran from the farmhouse in South Carolina where that darkness lived and headed South to blues and soul and songs she didn't write. She kept going and last year sent the postcard Sun from a strange post-apocalyptic desert where curves have gone out of letters and all that remains is abiding love between survivors and an ample supply of hair bleach and scissors.
And here she is in 2013, letting The Bob Dylan (as he is referred to in the liner notes of Moon Pix) do her introduction for her. If somehow you missed the meltdowns, the boozy disasters and the confrontations, Chan Marshall has developed a reputation as a bit of a shaky live performer.
This tour has been earning steadily raves across the country, but there was an incident or two, so you never know. Do people start to root for something to go wrong? Definitely. So that looms when the deluge of camera-phone flashes light up her weary beautiful face on the first song, "The Greatest."
She starts with her most recognizable song and follows it with the "hit" off her last record, "Cherokee." It only gets more obscure from there, although the pace of the night suffers not at all for it. Background visuals help us out with mood or inspiration or something; they include Technicolor geometry and the Sun (duh) and third-world children and hieroglyphics and a roaring gorilla.
Marshall's voice is not good, it is a work of art by general consensus. It is still that, and she employs it masterfully. Not only just when she is straight-up singing but also by obscuring the microphone with her hand or creating an enclosure with her fist to change the effect.
She is free. She dances. She does not endlessly, nervously grab the hem of her shirt as she did as recently as two years ago. She holds her head up high and throws her hands down on significant downbeats. She holds up a lighter while singing and dozens follow suit.
A whispered few songs ends with the relatively thunderous "3, 6, 9," Cat Power's homage to Lil' Jon and The Eastside Boys. What are the implications of swapping the line "Damn she fine" for "You drink wine"? I'll leave it to someone with more liberal arts degrees than I have.
We near the end; she's still standing tall. She is covered in sweat. The last song is "Ruin" and she paws at her neck, grimacing. She recently had to cancel a European tour because of Angioedema. Is this it? Is she having an attack right now, a sudden, potentially life-threatening swelling of the throat?
No. She doesn't miss a beat. She throws t-shirts into the crowd, she offers thanks and smiles broadly. Someone holds out a record and a sharpie, and while her band beats a retreat stage left, she rips off the plastic wrap and signs it. There are more, of course.
Shirts held high begin moving to the stage like ships on a sea of incredulous Cat Power fans. They play Kanye West over the PA and Chan Marshall stays with her fans, giving fist bumps and signing anything anyone waves her way. People are running to the merch table to buy something to offer her. The music stops; the house lights come up; she stays.
People are shouting. Some of it is hard to endure - there are girls sneering and yelling, "Cat! Hey Cat!" and boys bellowing catcalls. The appeals for signatures take a presumptuous turn. Someone is pushing aside smaller humans, holding records aloft and staring dead-eyed at the singer. The allegedly porcelain Chan Marshall receives it all openly. She continues to sign everything.
It's been 25 minutes since the set ended. The tour got a shipment of records for the merch table in today, and already they've sold out of everything except the vast quantity of the new one. This is the first time she's stayed to sign things.
Employees have started cleaning the place up, hauling out trashcans. A security guard is on his walkie-talkie asking a superior if he can start kicking people out. And still Chan Marshall signs. A girl holds up her hand and Chan signs her wristband. The girl is crying. Chan says, "Oh, don't cry! Save that for a ticket."
At 1 a.m., they finally start clearing people out as Chan Marshall waves goodbye.
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Setlist: Cat Power at South Side Music Hall, 1/25/13
The Greatest Cherokee Silent Machine Manhattan Human Being King Rides By Sun Bully Anjelitos Negros (Roberta Flack) Always On My Own 3,6,9 Nothin' But Time I Don't Blame You Peace and Love Ruin