3:00 pm Jan. 30, 20131
As a guitar played the same few chords over and again, slowly and methodically letting the pings ripple out to the perimeter of the massive room at Terminal 5, the singer Cat Power emerged from the wings wearing a jean jacket emblazoned on the back with the ‘C’ and ‘P’ monogram-hieroglyph that’s become a staple in promoting her latest album, Sun. It was possible to read it as a target on her back.
The eternally young-seeming 42-year-old has struggled both pre- and post-fame, and after her star lit up the spotlight has been a harsh one, full of troublesome relationships with rich men, famous men, regular men; bouts of confessed alcohol problems that have led her live performances to be pilloried in the press; questionable decisions about singing for commercials and modeling, and on and on.
But then just three months ago it was unclear whether this moment might arrive again at all. In November, Power cancelled a world tour in support of her new album, the first compiling entirely new material since 2006. The reasons were manifold, including a pending bankruptcy and suffering from angioedema, a painful skin-swelling condition. It had been such a shame because the album, Sun, was an exciting mixture of her raw lyrics with electronics, and had been possibly her greatest work to date.
All this was conspiring to make the moment one of great importance for the crowd of fans, but as she took the stage the jitters started to die out. A shudder of piano music filled the room, seeming to contract the space, as she began to sing the song "The Greatest": "Since I was young, I wanted to be the greatest," which for all its grandiosity is really, when you think about it, as plain and honest as a singer can be about her dreams. Perhaps more importantly in this room, it felt very much like the same Cat Power who had prowled the open mics of New York two decades earlier, on a new stage.
But there were surprises to come. In "The Greatest," Power was very much a singer-songwriter with session musicians supporting her; as she moved into Sun's lead single, "Cherokee," it became clear there was more. The piano gave the song, which deals with love, death and heritage meeting the vast expanse of the sky, a greater urgency. Fast moving clouds played on a screen behind them. Power’s never been completely comfortable with crowds, and the band seemed to be a helpful tool. There’s a push and pull in her performance, between an insular intensity and what seems to be a constant reminder that she’s performing for a packed crowd that, because of her performance style (she's known to play very raw, occasionally breaking into tears or stopping songs midway if the mood wasn't right) and confessional lyrics, has come to assume an intimacy with her which she almost seems not to know she's invited.
As the show progressed, it seemed as though she meant to put the past behind her; there were demarcations, subtle and not so subtle, between her new work and the familiar stuff of the last 20 years. Videos played on a screen behind the band but only for Sun songs. Static gorillas and shots of the Statue of Liberty played well with the stark, almost desperate “Always on My Own” and the dreamy subway ride of “Manhattan”, but the shots of people from India smiling playing during “Human Being” felt odd. “You’ve got a right, got a right, got a right, got a right, you’re a human being”, the song goes, and it works as piece of internal monologue, not an actual description of people. “Human Being” was the peak of New Cat Power, awash in electronica, words crashing into waves of keyboard and guitar. At times, it got hard to hear what she was saying.
The centerpoint of Sun’s optimistic message is its penultimate track, “Nothin’ But Time,” a gorgeous 10-minute drift that reaches out to the lonely and forgotten, building into a pep talk featuring Iggy Pop, that’s better motivation than any football coach has devised yet. Power and her band exhibited too tight a control to ever fully jam, but this was as close as they got. Over a cloud of piano riffs, she sang “It’s only time, and time ain’t got nothing on you.” There were hand claps! Early Cat Power would never have suggested such a maneuver, but they worked.
Cat Power’s spent a lifetime working around certain types of music, and Sun was a step into the unknown. Mistakes, like the vocal mix on “Human Being” and a few other tracks, are bound to happen. But the peaks she’s reaching are higher than ever before. There’s a feeling of experimenting, of throwing things at the wall to see if they fit. This was a concert at which Angel Haze, an up-and-coming rapper, opened for Power, to the confusion of much of the audience. Power's set opened with Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm” preceding the band and Kanye West’s “New God Flow” playing them out, after all. A disco ball appeared. T-shirts were thrown from the stage as if it were halftime at a Knicks game.
But for all that there are the high points. The creative zeal came out best during “Peace and Love,” Sun’s closer and one of its few bonafide rockers. It’s a song that builds on hippie ideals while never actually committing to any of them—“Peace and love is a famous generation, I’m a lover but I’m in it to win,” Power declares in the lyrics to the song. As the band propelled the number forward, Power suddenly went back to the drums and picked up a pair of sticks. She struck the air with them a few times, as if trying out the instrument for the first time. Having learned enough, she hit the canvas a few times, and seemed delighted. It sounded great. Why wouldn’t it?