It took a whole five minutes for Tueday night’s Cat Power concert at Mill City Nights to go bonkers. Things started out promisingly enough with the ethereal-bopping opener “Cherokee.” Midway through the title track of her new album “Sun,” though, the ever-enigmatic (and erratic) Chan Marshall started mumbling and pointing toward the front of the crowd. She then stopped the song altogether to scold photographers for doing what photographers do (and get passes from publicists and jump through many other hoops to be able to do): Take pictures to capture the look and vibe of a concert.
In this case, an awkward and tense photo would pretty well sum up the show. Whether or not Marshall was wrong to reprimand and oust the lens men – it’s ultimately up to her handlers to decide if and where photographers operate – she never quite righted that initial, abrupt halt in the gig’s momentum. An artist whose greatest career boost so far has been critical raves for her albums, she also mumbled something about “press telling lies.” Her little outburst may have had something to do with that day’s blogger reports that Marshall might cancel her upcoming U.K. tour due to “bankruptcy” and her battles with a medical disorder called angioedema. These reports were generated from her own Instagram post that said as much, by the way.
That one little tirade could’ve been forgiven, especially given the news, but the odd and uncomfortable moments continued. Several times, Marshall fumbled around the stage with a lighter trying to see better, and she occasionally went into random/distractive bouts of mid-song conversation with band members. She stopped another tune toward the end of the 90-minute set because an audience member had apparently fainted -- certainly understandable, but it just seemed like one more curse. As local musician Kevin Steinman tweeted after the show about the new Warehouse District venue, which has seen more drama in under a year than most venues do in five, “Is Mill City Nights built on an ancient burial ground?”
Marshall seemed to bury her own notorious quirks and shyness at a cocksure, animated 2008 First Avenue performance behind the “Jukebox” album. My lead on that review read, “Chan Marshall has finally burst out of her shell and become the rock star she has long been hyped to be.” There were still flashes of that brilliant display Tuesday.
The first highlight came six songs as she coolly strutted around and sang along to the sputtering groove of “Manhattan,” one of the more effective incorporations of electronic beats on her new album. A few songs later, she performed a powerfully drawn-out, dirge-like version of “The Greatest,” which gave her three-quarters female band a chance to impress. Best of all was the new 10-minute opus “Nothin’ But Time,” with a rolling, dramatic build-up and soaring vocals reminiscent of U2’s “Bad” and a fine example of Marshall’s evocative lyricism (“Never give away your body,” is one of its haunting refrains).
The concert also benefitted from a giant video backdrop that offered mesmerizing visual accompaniment to about half the songs, from images of impoverished but smiling third-world children in “Human Being” to a psychedelic burning ball during “Sun.” In that case, Mill City Night’s large, open, two-story stage set-up was certainly a plus, and the acoustics and crowd size (about 1,000) felt perfect. Just when it seemed like the venue finally had its act together…