By Mark Guarino
It’s a cheap shot but here it is: Cat Power turned the Vic Theatre into her own personal litterbox Wednesday. The Georgia-born singer is revered for her creepy vocal style and known more for her public meltdowns. At the Vic she gave the audience more of the latter.
Although compared to behavior from her past — bursting into tears, storming off the stage or curling up on the floor — this was nothing. But considering that she is now seven albums into a 12-year career, her loopy behavior has long lost its charm and threatens to squander her singing by turning it into novelty.
Although her live performances have mostly been the singer — real name Chan Marshall — accompanying herself on piano and guitar, this outing brought forth the Memphis Rhythm Band, a 12-piece group that featured members that played on legendary sessions at Hi Records, home to Al Green, Otis Clay and others. They also play on “The Greatest” (Matador), Marshall’s latest and a contender for one of the best albums of this year. That band’s slow burning touch illuminates the understated seduction of those songs in a way that’s sublime.
Live, that potential was never unleashed. Instead, the bulk — which included three string players, two horns, two backup singers, two bassists, and so on — were underused and felt more like props for an artist trying to look like she’s making a “serious” move. Too bad the artist wasn’t serious. Marshall performed with so many ticks, she made Joe Cocker look comatose. She was distracted which made the show a distraction.
A forecast of what was to come was “The Greatest,” the first song of the night. Annoyed by a rumble from the bass amp, she checked it twice and then signaled the band to stop to she could start again. Playing with a band that could make anyone sound impressive, Marshall was an uncomfortable fit. Where they had class, she was rough. She never used the band to use herself inside a song she sang, instead the audience was forced to watch her nervously chasing the song as it keep getting further and further away.
There came relief but it was brief: As the band left the stage she remained with just a piano player to sing “Where Is My Love.” The song possessed her and the sentiment never sounded so lonely or tragic.
That focus didn’t hold for long as the majority of the show was played solo. This was shaky ground and the audience was forced to watch Marshall struggle to get through songs. Her knack for covers — “House of the Rising Sun,” “Hit the Road Jack” — were slowed for chill factor, but she had trouble finishing. She later took a ten-minute break to smoke and chat about her favorite TV shows, and other fascinating stuff. By then, what seemed cute reflected back as sad.
“I’m almost done,” she often said when she got lost. Not soon enough.