This past Saturday was, despite living relatively close to Memphis my entire life, the first time I’ve attended the Beale Street Music Festival that kicks off Memphis in May. In years past, there have been acts who have tempted me to make the time commitment (for example Foo Fighters, Spin Doctors, The Black Crowes). But I’m pretty much not willing to suffer through the inevitable irritation of being in a crowd unless I really want to see an artist live. So, this year, because I love her music, but also because I’ve read that her live shows can be highly entertaining even if erratic, Cat Power (stage name of Chan Marshall) finally enticed me to make the two hour drive from Little Rock to Memphis.
I arrived about forty minutes before Ms. Marshall was scheduled to begin. The band, who played on the Cellular South stage before her, was just finishing. Lucky for me, as they finished, and as the stage crew made necessary equipment changes, the crowd dwindled to a handful of people and I was able to move forward to within about twenty feet of the stage. By the time she started playing, though, the area was again packed. While I waited, incidentally, I was freezing. When I left Little Rock, it was sunny and around seventy degrees. But beginning about fifteen miles west of Memphis, I spent the rest of the afternoon under a thick blanket of clouds that dropped the ambient temperature closer to sixty. The temperature, in combination with the wind from the Mississippi River, made a poor choice of only a T-Shirt and jeans.
A few minutes past the appointed time, some musicians wondered casually onto the stage and picked up their instruments. Given the weather, I was not surprised when Chan appeared on the left side of the stage, holding a coffee mug, and wearing a black hoodie with Stax printed across it in big, bold, red print. I did find it interesting, however, that she was also toting an SLR – whether or not it was digital I have no idea. She stood, on the edge of the stage, for two or three minutes drinking her (presumably) coffee, looking at the crowd and smiling. Then she walked to the center mike, removed it from its stand, walked to the right edge of the stage, put down her mug and camera, and immediately broke into song.
I think describing live music in words is, at best, difficult. But of the live acts I’ve seen, I can easily place all of them into one of two categories: (1) those I like more because of the live experience (Pearl Jam, Fiona Apple, U2, Garbage, etc.), and (2) those I like less (Counting Crows, Jimmy Buffett, Rage Against the Machine, etc.) Cat Power resides firmly in the first category. In fact, while there is no danger of me becoming Chapman to her Lennon, I’m now mildly obsessed with her music.
For most of the concert, she stayed on the right side of the stage, near where she had deposited the mug and camera. If she hadn’t seemed so happy between songs, I would have attributed it to a touch of stage fright. Instead, I got the feeling that she was simply flattered, and a little embarrassed, that people showed up to hear her play. So, instead of hogging the stage, she stayed to the edge and let her band share the spotlight. In that way, her performance was almost naïve, sort of the stereotypical reluctant star.
At the same time, she was, in her self imposed right-side-of-the-stage exile, very theatrical. For instance, a couple of times during “Silver Stallion” she held her hands out in front of her, as if holding the reigns of a horse, and sort of galloped a few paces. She accompanied almost every song by some sort of physical movement of that kind; I would not describe any of the movements as dancing. I related: the few times I’ve been on a stage (never as a singer), I was uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do with myself. Even though I got the idea that Chan Marshall can, unlike me, dance if she wants, her actions felt like she didn’t know what to do with herself. I found it wholly engrossing, and honest. And the honesty is probably why I loved it so much. In a world full of so much pop confection, it was refreshing to see someone perform honestly.
At the end of the concert, she lingered on stage, waving hello to her fans, and taking pictures with the SLR. Again, it was as if she was amazed that people wanted to see her sing, and she wanted to take pictures to remember the moment. Loved it.