When St. Louis last saw Chan Marshall, she was performing on a dark stage in Forest Park at LouFest 2011. Though barely visible as the sun went down, she and her expert, frenzied band bent the blues to their will. You couldn't see her, but if you heard her, you recognized it as the most powerful set at the festival.
This was before the release of her largely self-played, ambient-rock album Sun -- for financial and emotional reasons, her most prolonged and difficult project. These days, those who follow Marshall on the social platforms know her for her all-caps, ideogrammed barrages, coming and going as if she were addicted to every progressive RSS feed on the planet. Instagram activism from indie-rock stars is generally wince-inducing. With Cat Power, it's another glimpse, like it or not, into the manic, unfiltered spirit behind her music.
I arrived at the Firebird at 8:30 p.m. for the second of two hastily organized benefits Cat Power would perform for those calling for justice in Ferguson and everywhere. "All proceeds will go to help protesters get out of jail & any needed supplies & food for protesters & flowers for rifles," read the announcement. More specifically: St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Ferguson, which also collected food and other donations at the Billy Bragg appearance at the Royale last week. The crowd inside the Firebird was small: Perhaps 60 or 70 stood watching Nico, who later played with Marshall's Dirty Delta Blues band, strum two or three barre chords on an electric guitar and murmur lyrics about how it's OK to fish because fish have no feelings. Probably an ironic sentiment, but who could say for sure?
Forty minutes later, Marshall and her band walked on stage, and the crowd, perhaps a 100 or so by then, moved close as she welcomed them with a clearly improvised cover of the Everly Brothers' "All I Have to Do Is Dream," which segued into the Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham classic "A Woman Left Lonely," which the singer had covered on her Jukebox album. She then segued into a snippet of Jackson Browne's "These Days," which faded into Marshall's own composition, "Song to Bobby," referring to Bobby Dylan.
These days every song takes on new meaning, and on this night, the eve before the funeral for Michael Brown, Marshall's choices became unforced, anti-didactic, gentle-hearted expressions of sadness. And in that sadness they were as intended: from-the-gut expressions of solidarity. "Can you tell me who you were singing for?" she sang, no longer as a love letter to Dylan. "Can you tell me who were singing to?" She beamed from the stage, nervous and neurotic, of course, but also smiling widely at the kids in the front singing along with her. She passed out the wrinkled lyric sheets she had printed from Gmail; fans reached for them after every song. Midway through the set she leaned over and gave the microphone to a young woman who howled right back at her.
At his impromptu Ferguson benefit, Billy Bragg said, as he often does, that cynicism is our "true enemy." Cat Power made no such speeches -- a hard-to-follow monologue about Buddhism and art was as close as she came -- but she seemed to agree with Bragg, and added her own coda. Inurement of any kind is a foe as well.
Last night her voice was just that: a weapon against unfeeling, a siren straight from the inarticulate speech of the heart. She let her band -- bass, two guitars, drums, keys, a second percussionist at times -- do much of the musical talking, with a gorgeous and instinctive reading of Billie Holiday's "Don't Explain," complete with improvised lyrics about how "it's your time to leave." The band flew in for this show, had no time for rehearsals, but even the most prepared Cat Power show is as unscripted as a tipsy séance. And the way she sings -- holding and savoring notes, wringing out all the sweet, sad soul she didn't seem to know was there before she formed them -- makes every song seem composed on the spot, in that moment and onstage, new, and newly felt.
As moving and sincere as her performance was, it wasn't enough for some, who, true to their own self-absorption, chatted away at the front of the stage. "Shut the fuck up!" Marshall growled, and then "I'm sorry. Do you hate me?" And that too was a sincere glimpse into her psyche. For "Metal Heart" she took two microphones in her hands and just wailed as her band built to a wild crescendo. For a cover of the Velvet Underground's "Oh! Sweet Nuthin'" she spliced in lyrics from INXS' "Never Tear Us Apart," or maybe it was vice versa. For another Penn and Oldham classic, "The Dark End of the Street," she asked that the lights be turned off; in the shadows she seemed much more composed, slipping into the Spanish lyrics, written by Andrés Eloy Blanco, of Roberta Flack's "Angelitos Negros." Marshall stood in the dark and let stubs of incense blaze up around her mic stand.
"That's it, goodbye," she said, before one last, loud and long pastiche, with quotes from Patti Smith's "People Have the Power," maybe Thurston Moore's "Psychic Hearts," all delivered over the "Gloria" vamp and a final call of "G-L-O-R-I-A." The Double, just guitarist and drummer, held the stage and drone-jammed for fifteen-plus minutes as Marshall twirled and danced with the audience. Are you still skeptical of such gestures? Fair enough. Did she really need to fly in to St. Louis to raise funds for a good cause? No, perhaps not, but last night her music and the feeling behind it felt necessary all the same.
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