SAN FRANCISCO — It’s a rare intrigue when an artist can project timidity from within the limelight. Chan Marshall, better known as Cat Power, used her combination of mystique and warmth to create an atmosphere that was at once personal and communal Friday at The Fillmore.
From her raw but oblique lyrics to her often vulnerable persona, Marshall comes across as a private, or at least very thoughtful, person. Nevertheless, she computes for many fans as a natural artist and performer. Aided by this projection of a mysterious, complex inner life, and some ambivalence toward the spotlight, Marshall resonates as something of an outsider or underdog.
Playing on these circumstances, Cat Power skirted the fringes of the minimal stage lights throughout her set Friday, frequently remaining shrouded in semi-darkness. At times she would surge into the glow to deliver passionate vocals. At other times she melted back into obscurity between guitarist Adeline Jason and keyboardist Erik Paparazzi. Marshall moved fluidly onstage, seeming to swim forward and pop up suddenly in new locations. She wore a flowing black dress and addressed audience members graciously, with an irrepressible smile visible from where she stood in the shadows.
The set began with the cautiously rollicking “He Turns Down,” from 1998’s Moon Pix. The song’s gently lilting pattern meandered through wayward chord changes as Marshall explored a palette of delicate vocal inflections. The more upbeat, piano-driven cover of Nick Cave’s “Into My Arms” followed. A simple major theme mobilized explorations of the song’s emotional and dynamic possibilities. Cat Power built up over a series of verses, alternating increasingly urgent passages with several measures of rest while the band stoked an understated groove.
The three-member backing band consisted of Jason, Paparazzi and drummer Alianna Kalaba. Each one took turns playing bass. The sparse arrangement and warm quality of sound created plenty of space for subtlety. Kalaba in particular spiced things up with strong rhythmic accents. No instrument was lost in the mix, and the plain clarity of tone provided a vivid backdrop for Marshall’s voice to flutter and shiver over. Many of the songs revolved around simple chord-based themes repeated to hypnotic effect. Dynamically, the band allowed the songs to ebb and flow, matching the tenderness and urgency of Marshall’s soulful, swelling vocals.
Though the band varied its approach among major and minor keys, quieter numbers and a few moments that truly rocked, the set felt like one larger song comprised of shorter movements. This, combined with the subdued stage lighting and assured calm of the performers, created a raga-like atmosphere. Early in the set Marshall swirled a lit stick of incense on stage, sending curls of fragrant smoke into the darkness, and setting a meditative tone.
Cat Power kept the songs fresh, performing them with different emphasis, melodies and even lyrics than on the album versions. On “These Days,” another cover song, Paparazzi’s guitar figure was familiar, but Marshall sang with a unique take on the phrasing and words. The song then morphed into a medley of bright numbers. Another highlight included the affecting chord changes and heartfelt vocals of “Good Woman,” also differing from its recorded iteration.
Marshall augmented her sound by singing into two microphones at once, which were variously in and out of phase with one another, creating some atmospheric effects. However, her voice was impressive by itself as she exercised exquisite control. She displayed excellent pitch, flair without bombast, and a range of tones—from breathy pleas to powerful howls.
A refreshing element of humility embraced the room. Aside from eschewing most of her better-known songs, Marshall showed great appreciation for her fans, reaching out to them from the stage. Marshall didn’t spend much time speaking directly to the concertgoers, preferring to dart from song to song. It was clear, however, that she was happy and comfortable onstage with the blessing of a reverent crowd.
Critically acclaimed opening act Zsela performed a 35-minute set. Zsela is currently working on her debut EP, to be released in the first half of 2020.
Follow writer Alexander Baechle at Instagram.com/writheinsmoke.