Cat Power’s latest album is called, with commendable self-confidence, The Greatest. It lives up to the billing. A homage to southern soul and country-rock, recorded in Memphis with studio musicians who worked with Aretha Franklin and Al Green, its relaxed, atmospheric songs take the 35-year-old singer-songwriter, real name Chan Marshall, far from the spindly alt-folk of her early work. The transformation is rewarding.
Sadly, her stage show was not so enticing. Marshall has a fraught reputation as a live performer: a sufferer of stage fright, she has been known to flee mid-set in tears or sing with her back turned to the audience. She appears to have got it under control – the manner of her return for the encore, pedalling a bicycle and beaming, did not suggest performance anxiety – but an aura of unease lingered around the music.
The evening’s tempo was torpid. Her backing band came alive on The Greatest’s livelier tracks but sounded sluggish on its slower songs. Marshall’s vocals, emotive and evocative on record, were fragile and indistinct. The music may have been influenced by the robust virtues of classic soul and blues, but her feeble singing certainly was not.
Love was a repeated theme in the lyrics, but the singer’s abstracted delivery gave it meagre expression. Covers, including a muddy rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction”, fared little better.
The frustration was only made greater by the moments when the show hit the mark. The stately guitar and organ riffs powering “Willie” were hypnotic. At times the singer roused herself to sound wistful and touched. But these were scant consolations, and her keyboardist’s concluding claim that we had just witnessed “the best soul singer in the world today” was a grotesque overstatement.
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