3/9/05 - Brooklyn, NY, Southpaw

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3/9/05 - Brooklyn, NY, Southpaw

Post  Cokelike on Tue 31 Jul - 5:17

3/9/05 - Brooklyn, NY, Southpaw

This was the second of two shows at the Southpaw. Also a solo show. Langhorne Slim opened.

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I caught a Cat Power show at Southpaw last in March of 2005 (I think?), and she had a typically awkward set. Started out strong, and when she was on, she was superb, but the set dissolved into stopping-and-starting songs, awkward interludes of playing a few notes on the piano or running scales, mumbled apologies and the like. Of course, the crowd was lame and wouldn’t stop talking. Almost seemed like they went just to watch her have a mental episode, which is a pretty disgusting reason to go to a concert.

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I consider myself to be a hermit from the months of December till late March. It takes a major event for me to venture out into the windy, frostbitten darkness leaving behind the warmth and tranquility of my closet-sized apartment. So when I heard Cat Power was playing on March 9th, I was thrilled, but still slightly hesitant to go out on a bitter Wednesday night. Only when it was confirmed that her concert was taking place at Southpaw did I pile on the layers, strap on my boots, grab two scarves and work up enough nerve to endure the elements and my hour-long subway ride. I have seen a ton of shows in New York City, but there is something unique about Southpaw and its artists: pretentiousness does not make it past the door.

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The opening act was Langhorne Slim, a mix of folk, blues and rock, who won over the audience with his lively performance and stellar acoustic guitar playing. Once Langhorne Slim finished, the anticipation of Cat Power increased. Chan Marshall, the sobering solo artist that is Cat Power, is an introverted, but highly talented singer notoriously known for her sporadic and sometimes despondent playing style. Ms. Marshall has walked off stage because some drunken fan yelled something she didn’t find amusing. She sometimes covers a song, such as Free As A Bird, only to change her mind midway through and begin another. The lure of Cat Power is that on a “good” night it is a concert you will always remember. Lucky for me, March 9th was one I will not forget.

Chan Marshall takes the stage at around 10:30 p.m. Her face is covered by her long hair and thick bangs. She sits down, picks up the guitar and whispers, “Thanks for coming.” The audience responds appreciatively, but immediately following the uproar, concerned fans yell “shhhh,” and even the bartenders communicate to their patrons in a low murmur as to not disturb Cat Power’s aura. Marshall’s true fans realize that she is, above all, a musician. One who respects art over commercialism. Performing, although a necessity, does not seem to rank high on her list of priorities. Chan strums the strings with an intensity that silences Southpaw. Her sultry, dry ice voice cuts through the air as she pounds the piano, strategically positioned so that her back faces the audience.

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Three-fourths through the performance, as Chan rotates from her guitar to the ivory keys, she states, “It will all be over soon, I promise.” The audience does its best to reassure the humble Marshall, who seems completely unaware of the magical moment she has brought. The venue is dimly lit (done by her request) and if it were not for Cat Power’s ruminating voice echoing into my ears, I might assume the stage is empty.

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Upon finishing her beautiful set she puts down the guitar and with a ghostly gaze she says, “Next time, I promise, it’ll be better.” The audience slowly comes out of Chan’s hypnotic trance and applauds. Cat Power sticks out her hand from behind the curtain and gives a quick wave. Looking back, Chan Marshall made a lot of promises that night, but I can only swear that her act is worth witnessing.

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I had a great time. I want you to remember that as you read this. I know that my set up might have all the trappings of a great, overarching diatribe but really- no, really - I had a good time.

So... went to see Cat Power last night at Southpaw in Brooklyn. I'd never been to this venue before and after getting out at the wrong subway stop and walking from the dark side of Nowhere where an icy wind always awaits you around every corner, I was not in the best mindset. Once I got inside, had a vodka tonic clipped into my frozen clutches and got settled in a seat (!), I was happy. Southpaw is a good place. The Mercury Lounge (where I was the previous night) was a square box of the barest design. I don't knock venues like that. They keep the ticket prices down and normally attract only the more-devoted music fans, but even at 6-foot-3, I often find myself planted behind the shoulder blades of some huge guy who, innocent as he may be, has become my personal lunar eclipse. In Southpaw, they had a couple levels of risers with nice, heavy railings. Even the most elfin groupie can scope a decent spot out in the early hours and effectively avoid having a hard-earned spot ruined by a monolith in steel-toe boots.

I should have known I was going to be in trouble when I saw that 'The Village Voice' had listed the Cat Power concert as one of their picks-of-the-week, but I wasn't prepared for the Scenesters. I have mentioned the Hipsters before, but with the introduction of this new term, some clarification is necessary. Hipsters are NYC folks who show up in fasionable spots and order $10 drinks because they saw them on 'Sex and the City' or think that it makes them look good. If the drink has Grey Goose or Skyy Vodka, then bonus points can be scored. They wear bohemian, fashion-labelled clothes and pretend that they have anything resembling a handle on life because they are living in neighborhoods that once graced the heels of Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. These individuals are often annoying, but not evil. Their tragedy for the average Joe is that their deep wells of dispensible income will quickly drive rent and alcohol prices through the roof in an otherwise-cool area.

Scenesters are evil. They are the reason that I don't work in the film industry anymore (along with a couple of other things). They are also a good reason to not go to Irving Plaza or Roseland Ballroom or any other venue sponsored by Clear Channel. Once a band starts to break it big, their gigs become Events, and are immediately infected with the Scenester. They show up with no purpose other than to network with other people and, maybe, fuck the hot new thing that just started working at the agency/record label/publishing house/TV or movie studio. The vast majority of them work in the entertainment industry with the lowest rung being operated by agent mailroom interns and rising up through record executive. The concert-going Scenester M.O. is to show up mid-way through the opening act's set, buy a drink, find a conspicuous place to stand, then talk during the set about things like expensive vacations, restaurants, and other concerts he/her has ruined and 'insider' platitudes regarding their profession.

Well, the Scenesters were in full force on this night. Although probably not the best move for his career, the guy opening for Cat Power (I never got his name) made angry jokes regarding the clusters of indifferent Scenesters who were giving no love (except to themselves) that night. At one point he even tried to pick out a female scenester in the crowd who stood in his direct eyeline and never once turned to the stage. Despite the whooping of a sympathetic few, none of the Scenesters ever acknowledged him. The clatter of networking got loud enough to drown out his singing for the second half of the set. Finally, the guy tore through his last two songs with enough growling and shouting to make them pretty good.

I'd always heard that Cat Power's shows were a mixed bag. I didn't exactly know what that meant but I was intrigued. Half an hour after the opening act pressed his fedora over his eyes and stormed off stage, Chan Marshall made her appearance. The lights dimmed, the crowd went wild and a distracted, irritable, attractive woman took a seat in front of a huge piano. Now, I think that she was attractive. She was thin and dressed in appropriately-casual dress with gorgeous long, dark hair, but she hid behind it. Her bangs completely covered her eyes. Most of my mental image of the evening involves a microphone and a nose peeking out from behind a hair curtain. She pulled out an electric guitar and slowly strummed a few chords. Slowly, the sounds of a song came together. She leaned into the microphone and suddenly, there it was - the husky voice of Cat Power... and it sounded good. For anybody who've not been to a number concerts, it's hard to know what you're going to get when you see a band live for the first time. Some bands are record bands. Their songs are highly-produced or their voices have a layered, mixed sound, that just doesn't translate live. The vocals are weak and drown out beneath the guitar or the bass. Or worse, they sing so far out of tune that you wonder they even sang on their own record. Then, there are those bands who sound amazing live, but when you rush back home with their newly-purchased record, they don't have any of that coiled, nervous energy that made their music leap from the stage. Well, Cat Power turned out to be that very rare musician that sounds great both live and on a record AND she took the hat trick because her live show sounds just different-enough from her recordings to make it a unique experience .

So, I'm sure that you're thinking that it was the phenomenal performance of Chan that carried the night and left me feeling so good about the evening. She peformed all of her greatest hits from "You Are Free" and left the crowd rocking, right? Well, no. Chan did something that I've never seen before - she sabotaged Every Single Song she played. It was like reading a Beckett play where every joke is robbed of the payoff. Every time there was an opportunity to get a perfunctory round of applause, Chan would jump into another song and stifle it. She would play the first few bars of a song that the audience was pining to hear, then she would stop or fold it into something else. It felt like I was sitting in on that step in the creative audience when you try some new ideas out in front of your friends, just to see how they'll react to it... but she was doing it in front of a paying audience. She would play part of a musical phrase, then stop, set the guitar down, and try something different out on the piano. The Scenesters didn't know what to do with themselves. The event was actually becoming a real Event in which the perfunctory rules of engagement no longer applied. Shouting out requests, clapping encouragement for the beginning of a song they wanted to hear, cheering the self-deprecating mumblings of the artist - none of it worked. Chan just kept singing or strumming or plunking notes on the piano with a surrealistic thought process to guide it. The Scenesters began their retreat within the first 15 minutes. Prime positions in the room vacated and the temperature dropped 10 degrees from the draft of an exodus through the front door.

With all pretension abandoned, I settled into a beautiful set of music. It reminded me of my childhood when I would sit on the floor beside my mom's piano and listen to her play the highlights of songs that she could remember or fragments of sheet music she'd thumb through. If I offered to sing for a bit, she'd actually stick with it until I couldn't remember any more lyrics. At the end of her set, Chan stood up from her piano and mumbled "It'll be better next time. I promise," before slinking from the stage. Some fans tried to whistle and clap her into doing an encore, doggedly refusing to abandon the rules of engagement. But the rules were not being followed this night.

Thank God.

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Cokelike

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