I’ve often said that live music is the hardest type of art to write about, because so many elements of a concert follow the same script from artist to artist and show to show: play your songs, introduce the band, thank the audience, play an encore. On October 30, though, the mercurial singer-songwriter who performs as Cat Power played a strange and wonderful show at Mill City Nights that reminded me why some journalists spend their careers covering live music—and why it gives them ulcers.
The show started with delay: Cat Power, whose given name is Chan Marshall, came out over half an hour past her announced 10 p.m. set time. That’s part of the standard rock-star script, but what’s less typical is to Instagram a Bible with the caption, “I MAY HAVE TO CANCEL MY EUROPEAN TOUR DUE TO BANKRUPTCY & MY HEALTH STRUGGLE WITH ANGIOEDEMA. I HAVE NOT THROWN IN ANY TOWEL, I AM TRYING TO FIGURE OUT WHAT BEST I CAN DO. HEART BROKEN. WORKED SO HARD. GOT SICK DAY AFTER ‘SUN’ CAME OUT & BEEN STRUGGLING TO KEEP ALL POINTS OF ME IN EQUILIBRIUM : MIND, SPIRIT, BODY HEALTHY CENTERED & GROUNDED. I AM DOING THE BEST I CAN. I FUCKING LOVE THIS PLANET. I REFUSE TO GIVE UP. THOUGH I MAY NEED TO RESTRATAGIZE FOR MY SECURITY & HEALTH.”
While fans Googled “angioedema” (“like hives, but under the skin,” explained Andrea Swensson of The Current), Cat Power’s placidly smiling roadie came out and lit a stick of incense as Bob Dylan’s “If You See Her, Say Hello” began to play: Cat Power’s arrival was imminent. And, at last, the artist did appear. Marshall, 40, whose hair has hung long and dark for much of her career, now has the sides of her head modishly shaved and a tall unkempt bouffant bleached out on top. She still wears black, though, as do her band.
Musically, Marshall has switched things up considerably for her new album Sun—her first album of new material in six years—and her touring band reflects that. Whereas the band I last saw her with at First Avenue was lean and soulful, her new four-person ensemble are dynamic and clamorous. Marshall started her set with a forceful reading of her new single “Cherokee,” but then brought things to a halt near the beginning of the set by telling press photographers to stop shooting. “What does that pass say?” she said angrily to one, suggesting that it wasn’t a valid photo pass. “I don’t know who gave it to you.” She then turned to the audience and said, “I’m not here for them, I’m here for you.”
There seems to have been some confusion regarding photo access—the Twin Cities Daily Planet was told that Cat Power’s tour was not granting photo passes for this show, but other local media outlets were apparently issued passes by someone affilliated with the tour or venue. [Update: A Mill City Nights staff member tells me that two publications were granted photo passes by representatives of the band, so “there clearly must’ve been some miscommunication between Chan and her camp.”] The humiliating incident left a sour taste in the mouth of local media (“I’m seriously a little worried Chan might see me taking notes & stop the show again,” tweeted the Star Tribune’s Chris Riemenschneider), but meanwhile, Cat Power and her band settled into a tight set that ended, with no encore, just before midnight.
Playing guitar on only one song, Marshall sang into a pair of mics, employing different vocal effects on each, and kept a close eye on her crowd—perhaps looking for human connection, perhaps looking for more photographers. When a young woman passed out near the stage, Marshall called security over to help and passed her personal water bottle down to rejuvenate the woman, who was escorted out to later wake up with foggy memories and a unique souvenir. Marshall’s banter was minimal, but the Georgia native repeatedly thanked the Minneapolis crowd “so fucking much” for coming and gave us an odd compliment: “Midwest people are, like, they remind me of really smart Southern people.”
Drama, onstage and off, is nothing new for Marshall, whose 20-year career has been marked by bouts of uncertainty and who’s cut shows short when she feels like it. There’s nothing uncertain about Sun, though, a self-produced album that brings Cat Power’s sound into the present—complete with electronica—without breaking the raw, confessional thread that’s marked her work since her spare early records.
The Mill City Nights set (the first show I’ve seen at that venue; I was impressed with the sight lines and the sound, though fans paid dearly for it with tickets that were $40 at the door) peaked with “Silent Machine” and “Peace and Love,” songs from Sun that paired a throbbing bass rumble with slashing electric guitar licks. It’s a potent sound that well-suits an artist whose creative powers—and personal eccentricities—are as clear and present as ever.
Coverage of issues and events affecting Central Corridor communities is funded in part by a grant from the Central Corridor Funders Collaborative.