SHE PROMISED that what would come was better, and we didn’t believe her.
Yes, the one Cat Power song (that’s not really a Cat Power song) everyone has heard but no one will talk about. That little whisping Velvet Underground take could have served as the cutline preview for Chan Marshall’s sold out show at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. on Sunday night.
You couldn’t get past the back story. It's indie-rock’s longest running soap opera, The Life and Times of Chan Marshall, in which a loveable, tortured and oh-so-vulnerable brown-eyed vocalist battles her addiction to the stage and her dependence on the bottle. Playing since 1995, the dramatic and passionate story has been filled with fragmented live performances, rambling interviews, and heartbreakingly soulful music that just won’t let the listener walk away. And everyone wanted to be a shrink.
Even yours truly.
But when Sunday night finally came, the biggest question was not whether Marshall would storm off the stage, it was whether anyone would really care if she did. Apologies for the over-simplification, but there’s a difference between easy-listening lounge music and the product of a smoky-voiced musical goddess. Unfortunately following Marshall’s well-documented lifestyle recovery, her recent recorded music sometimes lacks fire. Jukebox has moments bordering on unimaginative, and I didn’t stand over three hours for misplaced New Orleans elevator music. I’ve had a crush on Chan for quite some time, and there had been ample place set aside, in my not-so-lonely heart, for the disappointment of the bland.
Enough with my backstory, the lights went dark, the Dirty Delta Blues crawled out, the slow mournful musical cushion started, and then there she was.
And there was much rejoicing.
“Last time I saw you, you were on-stage.”
She was whispering the words we knew, but “I Don’t Blame You” didn’t sound like anything we had ever heard. The notes were drawn out, filled with a foundation from the backing band, and Marshall’s voice coolly burned its way through the shadows of the stage. It was haunting. The audience was mute.
And she was so close.
Witnessing a goddess that close is disrobing. It’s one thing to listen to “House of the Rising Sun,” from the safety of your room, behind the insulation of the recording, but have Chan Marshall stare into your face forcing out, “God I know I’m one,” and see if your body isn’t frozen.
It’s a disservice to even compare the live and recorded versions of Marshall’s songs, because, while the tracks on Jukebox can melt into one another, each line of the set list served as a new part of the story and a chance to catch your breath for just a few short seconds. Every song is redone, remade, and filled with an honest passion that transcends the “cover” label. She never stopped moving, her hands and feet darting across the stage and air, making time and telling a story for each hushed line dropping from her mouth.
Then she ran into, “Lord Help the Poor and Needy,” and something changed. She wasn’t just singing about her troubles and her pain; she was singing about us. She sang for those without love. She sang for those without a job. She sang for the motherless. Leaning out over the crowd, within arms length, Marshall channeled the blues.
And then Fogerty’s words started sliding into the microphone and you finally knew what it meant to watch that fortunate son, but never able to be him. Marshall built the song slow, working her way through every one of the classic lines, but by the time she hit “they’ll send you off to war,” the band had driven the song into a scorching, drum-heavy finale that left you wondering: “this is Cat Power?”
Whatever stories might surround Marshall, whatever problems she may have had, whoever she might have been, the woman in front of me, squeezing every last drop of sound from the microphone, was not that person. More Robert Plant than Elliot Smith, Marshall channeled pure rock ‘n roll, strange for a woman who has made a living in the tortured confessional.
It’s not like the hurt isn’t there (the tears starting coming twenty seconds into “Metal Heart), she just sings about it differently. Hers is the voice of a woman set free from the chains of depression and addiction, but one who can’t forget what it means to live in that darkness. She still doesn’t talk much on the stage, curtsies after each song, seems embarrassed by the attention. Then you see her smile, or rather her smile discovers you, and there’s no doubt that she’s exactly where she wants to be.
Her band doesn’t hurt things either. The “Dirty Delta Blues” are more than guns hired to fill the musical gaps underneath Marshall and occupy space on-stage. These men may have the grizzled-rocker look down, but they drive the musical swells just as much as any vocal inflection. Much like the under-appreciated Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding with Hendrix, the Dirty Delta Blues allow Marshall to take the performance and passion to an intense and spine-tingling level.
She closed with “Angelitos Negros,” a b-side from Jukebox, and as she stood there, fumbling with the lyrics, trying to get the microphone to stay up, there was a strength pervading her vulnerability and providing a strange foundation for her existence. There was something in the way she stood on top of the speakers, on the edge of the stage, singing out to the crowd. Then she untangled the mic chord, throwing the stand to the ground, leaning out, holding onto the shoulders of the audience for support, whispering into the microphone and their ears like she was singing this song for no one else in the room.
Photograph by Nathan Martin.
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