It must be difficult being Cat Power. Having made her name writing and performing fearless songs with depth, intelligence and soul, there's not much opportunity for levity at her gigs. The set list of a Cat Power concert resembles chapters in a Virginia Woolf novel, and while there is no doubting the brilliance and bravery of her output, it must be restricting, having to go onstage and bare her soul - again. No wonder she suffers from nerves. What happens if she is having a ciggy in the wings and is in a really, really good mood - jolly, mischievous, hilarious - knowing that soon she has to flay herself, and the audience, with a song like "Bully"? Watching Cat Power's powerful, moving show last night, I was struck by the grooves (non musical) that artists dig for themselves by virtue of audience expectations of them and their material. What if Angus Young decided to dispense with the school uniform and play a depressive acoustic set based on his discovery of Kafka? What if Jonathan Richman decided he hated being winsome, and wanted to be all Death Metal. What if Cat Power wanted to stroll on stage whistling, and play some happy go lucky upbeat pop, like CSS?
Of course, that's not the point, is it? Nor is it fair to the artist that is Chan Marshall, who came on stage last night with a joss stick, and went straight into a brutal, pared down version of The Greatest, with full, blinding stage lights on the audience for much of it. You don't go to a Cat Power gig for light entertainment, and from the start this was hard core. Though she smiled last night, her performance was edgy, full of tics, uncertainties, hesitations. In the audience, as on stage, you could never really relax.
That's what makes Chan Marshall so compelling, and so important as an artist. Part of the discomfort of a Cat Power show is the contradiction between the content and expression of the performance, and the tight, bland strictures of a rock show. Here comes Cat - people whoop and whistle. She sings Cherokee, in a performance of such graceful beauty that it brings a tear to the eye. It finishes - people whoop and whistle. Even the architecture of the Roundhouse is inappropriate for a Cat Power gig. Half way though a searing version of "Bully", I was was joined by two blokes from the bar at the back, who stood with their beers and laughed and joked all the way through it. I wanted to say something to them, but hey - they were at a rock gig, and surely there shouldn't be all these hurt silences when the murmur of the bar echoed around the hall. You don't get that problem with The Darkness.
That said, there were some upbeat moments, though, tinged with fragility. Manhattan saw Chan swaying and clapping, smiling as she sang. Not exactly Sweet Home Alabama, but the closest we got to a sing song. But that's OK. This is better than a rock gig - not a rock gig, but a thrilling, high wire performance.
As I walked to Chalk Farm tube later on, I reflected on what a huge star Cat Power is. She has sold out the huge Roundhouse twice, and can fill theaters around the world as long as she wants to turn up. This fame and acclaim is actually quite inspiring. Through not fitting in, not faking it, not compromising, Cat Power appeals to lots of people who also are unsatisfied with bland corporate mush that is modern music. In Cat Power we have something rare in popular culture. A serious artist.
Have a listen to Cat Power singing The Greatest: