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A cat with no class: Chan Marshall.

photo: Joe Putrock

Nervous and Shaky
By John Brodeur

Cat Power
MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass., Dec. 4

In the spirit of Carnac the Magnificent:

“Professional, rehearsed, confident. . . . Name three adjectives that cannot be used to describe Cat Power’s performance at MASS MoCA.”

Don’t get me wrong—I like her records. On wax, Chan Marshall (the performer otherwise known as Cat Power) is able to convey a deep internal ache, through her songs and others’ (as on 2000’s The Covers Record). Her songs are simple and plainly stated, revealing without being overtly confessional. But it’s her voice that’s the real draw—a mysterious whisper, like a fleet of violas playing through an old wax cylinder, it’s smoky and narcotic, soothing and haunting.

But, for all the critical acclaim and adoration from fans, she’s never been able to hold it down live. Marshall has a long, documented history of performance anxiety. It’s become the stuff of legend (meaning a certain amount of exaggeration is involved) in some circles. Depending on what you read, she might perform with her back to the audience, be unable to finish songs, or have a full-on nervous breakdown onstage.

Regardless of how true or untrue these tales might be, more than 600 fans piled into the bleachers at MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center for a rare area appearance from their fragile heroine. Word has it Marshall had one of her famous breakdowns during a Friday-night performance at TSL in Hudson, so perhaps the fans should consider themselves lucky that she was able to stay at least partially composed for a full 90 minutes. The law of averages worked in their favor.

Marshall shuffled onstage nervously and took her seat, exuding an easy Southern charm as she sheepishly asked the crowd, “Y’all live around here?” It quickly became obvious, however, that something wasn’t right. Before beginning her first song, she adjusted the microphone stand no less than three times and loudly cleared her throat on-mic.

Her nerves gradually manifested themselves in bigger, more distracting ways. During early numbers, she loudly stomped her feet as she strummed. Later, the throat-clearing became more frequent, landing in the middle of songs. When she moved to the piano, it sounded as if her pedal foot was amplified, like there was a hollow kick drum under there. (This might not have been her fault, actually, but it didn’t help.) It was like watching a hyperactive 11-year-old piano student giving her first recital. She was tentative, shaky, and, by the end of the evening, downright standoffish.

The song selection didn’t do her much good. She front-loaded the set with a string of stuttering two-chord blues numbers, which ended up blurring together into one big mess. After about six of those in a row, even the otherwise excellent “I Don’t Blame You” (from 2003’s awfully good You Are Free) was rendered virtually unrecognizable, bearing the same lumbering cadence of the songs preceding it.

Her segues got more and more awkward as the night wore on. At first, she’d stop for a moment and squeak out a joke of sorts before lurching into a new song. By night’s end, she was basically just fucking around, picking away at random chords, as if she didn’t even know her own material. At one point, she turned what sounded like an improvised piano riff into a song, then stopped moments in, muttering, “It’s gone, it’s gone . . . does anybody know where it went?” This kind of behavior would be excusable, humorous even, if it happened once in a set. By this point, she was 60 minutes deep, and the fans—those who weren’t cheerleading, anyway—were getting restless and tired of such frivolity.

The last portion of the show felt uncomfortably voyeuristic. What could have been one of the bright spots of the evening—a right-on take on the Moon Pix track “Say”—was aborted about a minute in, with Marshall exclaiming that the room sounded bad (it didn’t) and asking for the stage lights to be turned off (they were). She fiddled with pieces of a few cover tunes, hollered into the air like a banshee (she called it Dutch opera), finished “Say” (from exactly where she left off), and picked through a few verses of “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.” There was some muttering off-mic, a semi-earnest “Thank you for being patient,” and, finally, the “big exit,” which she prefaced by telling the audience, “I think I’m going to get up and leave now.”

For someone whose fan base has tripled with each successive release (according to her record label), it’s profoundly odd that she hasn’t gotten the hang of this whole performance thing. It almost seems like an act. She’s got some great tunes and a sense of humor, and her voice sounds as wonderful live as on record, but come on—how much longer will people shell out money for this?

Hold the Soul

Hot Tuna
The Egg, Dec. 5

For anyone who’d been bothered by the absence of a mandolin in Hot Tuna’s lineup, being at last Sunday’s show must have been like hitting the jackpot. The core duo of guitarist-singer Jorma Kaukonen and bass guitarist Jack Casady are now augmented by mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff. Now he’s a superb player, tossing off trilled riffs with the casual ease of whistling (please allow me some leeway in active mandolin descriptors, I’m admittedly in unfamiliar terrain with the sturdy little stringed one).

When Hot Tuna were at the Egg two years ago, they played as a duo, a format that showcases what makes them a compelling and unique entity, as Casady’s bass lines wove through Kaukonen’s fingerpicking like one many-tentacled entity. With the addition of Mitterhoff, the duo’s balance is shifted into something much more commonplace, as rhythm and lead components set the scene, clipping Casady’s wings and relegating him to the foundation. His flights of fancy were largely set aside except when he took his turn soloing. But again, Hot Tuna’s strength was in the continuously interwoven lines of the band’s two founders. When they were a quartet with Papa John Creach, his violin was a bracing contrast to Kaukonen.

The night was divided into two sets: an hour acoustic to start, followed by nearly 90 minutes electric. For the latter, drummer Erik Diaz came on board, but so did the mandolin. In addition, through Mitterhoff’s own skills and various effects boxes, he made the mandolin sound like an electric guitar. To what end? Why not just strap on an electric guitar for the whole set (something he did for a few numbers)? Again, great player, but that was part of the problem. The night came off as a soloist’s showcase, a circumstance underscored by the sold-out audience’s automatic response to every solo: applause, as if a sign were lit at the conclusion of every harmonically correct set of variations on a theme. The night felt like a gathering of those linked by their adoration of a once-daring entity, now offering up smartly rendered, but rather soulless renditions of a tried-and-true repertoire. Granted, this is the arc that most of us follow, no matter what the discipline. However, without the sad engine of nostalgia, it was a charming and musically correct night of empty calories.

—David Greenberger


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