TVD Live: Cat Power at the 9:30 Club, 12/16

The music starts up minutes before Cat Power strides on stage. Her backing trio conjures a kind of soundscape of pointillist notes, more structured than tuning up, but not entirely melodic either. They are providing an atmosphere in which Chan Marshall can emerge.

In her beguiling show at the 9:30 Club in DC on a recent Sunday, Marshall was freed from her own guitar or piano playing, instead steadying herself with the twin microphone stands pointed toward her, that she gripped like ski poles on her way down a slalom.

Once, the long time folk-tinged siren of indie rock was said to be so full of stage fright she could hardly complete a show—or she had to drink to get through it. By now, at 46 and a mother, she’s found a way to present live shows as alluring as her very personal recorded output. That comes with one big caveat: making her almost impossible to see.

The stage is barely lit but largely from the back, in a general fog, and the figure of Marshall can be seen—tall and rangy, using a lot of hand movements, and moving across the full stage. But from the middle of the floor one can never glean a facial expression until the lightning moment when a flash goes off on a camera phone.

It creates the same kind of murky mystery that her slow and moody songs do. Even if it’s a little frustrating for fans hoping to more clearly see her perform. But if the trade-off is solid show, so be it.

Marshall’s got something to prove here. Her latest album Wanderer, her 10th studio album overall and her first since 2012’s Sun, was rejected by her label of more than 20 years, Matador, and they parted ways. Its release in October on Domino showed her sticking to a particular sound, though it varied to the degree that she dueted with Lana Del Rey and included a cover of a Rihanna tune. In the former, she may have made a declaration by starting, “If I had a dime for every time / Tell I’m not what you need” and ending with an anthem.

Songs from previous works fit well with the new songs, and equally showed off her smoky and expressive voice, which remained strong despite a spate of coughing between songs and sometimes during them, discreetly between verses.

The spare intricacies of her guitar and piano arrangements from drummer Alianna Kaaba, and guitarists Adeline Jason and Erik Paparazzi (who also switched up on bass and keyboards) enhanced songs like “Me Voy” and particularly “In Your Face,” which she’s been melding into Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion.”

With the groove started by her band, she’d flit from one song to another in medleys that covered a lot of ground, shifting from “Into My Arms” to one line of the “Dark End of the Street” cover to eventually “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.”

She ended not with an encore but with sincere thanks that her fans have allowed her the freedom to express herself as an artist.

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