When it comes to Chan Marshall, you can only rarely really know what you’ll get, if you’re to get her at all. And with this long-awaited London date having already been shuffled back from December of last year, you daren’t even so much as envisage a Cat Power concert taking place until already in full effect. Mercifully for all involved however, Marshall this evening emerges a touch after nine to embark upon ninety minutes of typically unpredictable exposure…
Beginning with an initially unidentifiable riff what rocks awkwardly between Americana and the prerequisite acoustic interlude anticipated of any which stadium spectacular, from the ether and the ambiguity belatedly appears The Greatest. Truth be known, it’s far from the greatest version ever heard of said song although Marshall’s wilful wont for change and erraticism oughtn’t be so expeditiously disregarded. For she has always seemed an artist taken by challenge: that of recurrently compelling her audience, as well as that of composing, recomposing and recommencing again herself as an artist time and time again. Discrepancies between her each and every recording are thus as much manifest as they are multifarious, and for such unrelenting drive she should incontestably be celebrated.
But only very occasionally has she so closely resembled the off-kilt pop star she this evening spits the eerily uncanny image of when slurring languid, if still dulcet sweeteners. It’s in the leather jacket embellished with bubblegum-pink gaffer tape; her debatable proficiency when it comes to the strumming of her guitar during Silent Machine – one that’s arguably equivalent in capability to that of, say, Hannah Montana; the stripped bit during which she airs a doleful Bully that is itself as though the acoustic hush aforesaid. The Greatest, similarly, benefits from an extempore Auto-Tune extension and she even treats herself to a flagrantly staged costume change, ditching the Karen O sling in favour of a considerably more becoming denim smock. With the temperature within the robust brick walls of the Roundhouse rising all the while, it’s less a change of costume and more one of convenience although that it takes place in full view of her every acolyte here congregated again intimates toward a truly eccentric take on pop star etiquette. Yes, a rapturous applause greets her every rendition – many of which grow increasingly radical and with that unfaithful as the evening wears on – but again, even this aspect situates itself wildly at odds with the stasis brooding offstage and to rationalise that a minute, all interaction is kept to a bare minimum at all times. That is to say that whilst her words may be inimitably husky when sung, when said they’re scarcely perceptible at best.
Occasionally we’re capable of discerning effusive “Thanks for coming” in a palpably Yankee twang; elsewhere only intermittent mumbles and insistent grumbles directed at the sound desk punctuate the applause. It’s thus a discomfiting ambience which is at once contradictory, if sporadically comparable to that of a pop blast some way down Wembley Way. She lacks the necessary focus for shows of such size and so too stature of course, infrequently flighting mouthed nothings up toward the dimly lit Members’ Bar hanging from the balcony above, while seeking incessant reassurance from her shadowed cronies and gesticulating awkwardly to those more engaged of audience members.
Although ultimately, eternally erratic, this is a truly singular sort of showing the like of which we can only tenuously liken to the sort of bombastic pomp and show which is so conventionally considered the preserve of The O2 Arena. You’d be lucky to witness Britney lighting up an incense stick beneath its grotesque tarpaulin, or to see Taylor Swift so openly flout the smoking ban to take surreptitious tokes every now and then. Marshall also draws sporadic sips from another indeterminate vice in a Union Jack mug – one ostensibly newly acquired at the nearby Camden Market – although moreover, as far as auxiliary visual elements may be concerned, they remain rudimentary throughout – negligible detractions in place of indispensable distractions from a music usually found drastically wanting. The light show is thus restrictive when even existent, and it’s during an impassioned Human Being that the vast screen beyond reads of ‘Energy Efficiency In Industrial Processes’ propaganda. During a sinister cover of Roberta Flack’s Angelitos Negros meanwhile, the glare of a luminous spotlight splashes up against her back so that her silhouette appositely casts the shadow of an itself colourless angel on the far wall. However Marshall remains faceless as this nebulous spectre looming large over Level 1 and, fluently delivered in a tone neatly befitting her rusty croon, her Spanish tongue coils to a strangely Russian tune in what is one of many bewildering aural overhauls of songs we’ve previously indulged in time and time again. It’s to that same extent that Manhattan is hence rendered an extravagant disco shimmy better renowned of New York’s infamous Meatpacking District.
However it’s only as the show then approaches its final cadence that a creeping susurrus denotes Marshall’s descent into the outwardly anarchic. The flickering of a by now recalcitrant projector undermines the already dicky, Get Behind Me Satan-bastardising 369. Similarly the poppy optimism of Nothin’ But Time, although zesty, so frequently threatens to be Heroes just for one day that even the Screamadelic gospel foofaraw of its closing moments offers little by way of redemption. It’s met with the most inert clap-along of recent memory, and requires an incendiary Metal Heart to reignite the fires of even vague professionalism. Once more newly renovated, if still instantly recognisable, it’s the kind of innately intimate ballad for which major label execs worldwide would doubtless yet carve up and mail out to their every competitor the dismembered limbs of Carly Rae Jepsen just to get their grubby mitts on.
And then, as though the show in its entirety were some elaborate rouse documenting the rise, fall and theatrical resurrection of Chan Marshall almost à la Lady Gaga circa The Monster Ball, everything at last pulls together for a unifying run through Ruin. It is, in its essence, the pristine definition of the perfect pop song and although with it highly provocative, it’s an adhesively unforgettable number composed of those most desirous of sonic ingredients. And whereas Cherokee before it was driven to utter distraction by a heavily improvised rephrasing, it’s conversely reproduced consummately with an utmost ease.
We, Great Britain, may be the last in the place name litany recited at its every chorus, although this evening has ultimately proven to be worth the wait. And as its choppy Chinese keys conclude proceedings, Marshall remains onstage to adoringly fling bouquets and setlists out to her more enduring of disciples. The lights up and New God Flow begins to really blare but still she remains, mouthing its vulgar stanzas to furnish us with an appositely disconcerting ending to a genuinely discombobulating evening.
“What’s a king without a crown, nigga?/ What’s a circus without you clown niggas?” Pusha T inquisitively posits and indeed if Cat Power has proven to be omnipotent at times tonight, then she’s been almost comically off the pace at others with the spectacular thus tinged momentarily with the absolutely shambolic. She and her ragged live show are, quite indubitably, somewhere betwixt the two extremes but totally incontrovertibly, never can either be found anywhere approaching mediocrity and this ultimately proves her one and only uncompromising consistency.