Photo by Campbell Milligan

Review: Cat Power’s Spellbinding Sydney Peformance

Cat Power isn’t exactly known for her consistency.

Which is why her show at the Enmore last Monday night was so spellbinding. Infamous for her flightiness, Chan Marshall strolled confidently onto the stage and kicked off the set with an arrestingly self-assured version of ‘He Turns Down’ from Moon Pix. The first thing I noticed was that her backing band was really fucking good. Her guitarist, Adeline Jasso, is the spitting image of a younger Chan, and the resemblance extends to her delicate playing, which captured the subtlety of the early songs where other touring bands have struggled. Similarly, keyboard player Erik Paparazzi could pass for the late Conway Savage any day, and he deftly moved between instruments without missing a beat.

Having played it straight for one song, the band followed Chan down the rabbit-hole. A seemingly new song revealed itself to be Nick Cave’s ‘Into My Arms’, and proceeded to morph into ‘I Don’t Blame You’ from her 2003 LP, You Are Free. This was like the distillation of Cat Power’s neuroses—she has a restless need to rework songs and tap into previously hidden meanings. A month earlier at the Sydney Opera House, Nick Cave explained how he loved ambiguity in songwriting because of this potential for reinterpretation. He talked specifically about how ‘Into My Arms’ had changed meaning for him, transforming from a swansong to PJ Harvey into one of unconditional love following the death of his son Arthur in 2016. Likewise, ‘I Don’t Blame You’ was written about Kurt Cobain’s suicide and Marshall’s affinity with any performer’s demons, but for a decade she refused to say so lest it devalue the meaning others attached to it. Seeing these two songs combined was like witnessing a manifesto on the power of ambiguity—songs written in a state of grief were transformed into a statement of love and forgiveness.

This endless reworking continued throughout the night, ranging from beautiful to bizarre. Particularly touching was the song she dedicated to Conway Savage—an endlessly shifting mirage that started as Bob Dylan’s ‘He Was a Friend of Mine,’ flirted with the lyrics to ‘Never Tear Us Apart,’ and ended on the resigned catharsis of Rowland S Howard’s ‘Shivers.’

Some odder moments included when she performed Lana Del Rey’s ‘White Mustang’ to the music of her own smoky version of Hank Williams’ ‘Ramblin’ Man’, or delayed the climax at the end of ‘In Your Face’ to ad lib some Frank Ocean lyrics. Convoluted? You bet. But that’s what made the show so magical. For every left turn Marshall made, it always related to the moment before it, presenting itself like a constantly racing mind. This impression of stepping into Chan’s thoughts was aided by the venue. The spacious Enmore Theatre dropped all of its curtains and closed the top floor, lending the bottom level a self-containment and intimacy that allowed the songs to become all-consuming.

Her backing band on the ‘Wanderer’ tour seems to be central to why the show worked so well. Comprised of only three musicians (Chan stayed away from the guitar and piano for the night), they were able to deftly recreate each song without ever overstating their roles. And Chan seemed incredibly happy to share the stage with them. In this way, they represented the stability and self-assurance that Marshall’s neuroses have so frequently undermined. This was easily the most comfortable I’ve seen her on stage; she seemed grounded enough that when she took a risk, she didn’t just survive. It paid off.

They performed ‘Great Waves’ by the Dirty Three without seeking to emulate the unhinged beauty of Warren Ellis and Mick Turner’s chaotic strings, but tapped into their own mode of interlocking guitars, resulting in a beautiful trancelike version.

Cat Power seems to have finally come full circle. After a career defined by endless reinvention, she has reached a point where she acknowledges and is proud of all that she has made. Seeing early songs like ‘Cross Bones Style’ delivered in a way that embraces the emotion with which it was penned, as well as remaining authentic to her present-day self, is deeply gratifying. Every song, new and old, sat cohesively alongside each other and formed a self-contained narrative. A narrative that ended with her imploring, ‘Keep your chin up.’ Chan raised her fist into the air, propped it beneath her chin as if to support it. Glanced back to the ground as if she’d forgotten something. And scurried off the stage.

Sign up for the Monster Children Newsletter