Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

Blissed out minimalism

17 February 2019

Perth Festival Review: Cat Power ⋅
Chevron Gardens, Elizabeth Quay, February 14 ⋅
Review by Varnya Bromilow ⋅

It was the kind of blessed Perth night when, on the way to the gig, you see women in burqas gleefully splashing in rainbow-hued water fountains. Not too hot, not too cool, wondrously still. Sure, the venue might be named after a multinational oil company, and sure, Elizabeth Quay might be a strangely treeless urbanscape, but Perth was feeling pretty rosy on Thursday night as a capacity crowd welcomed American songstress Cat Power to the stage.

The Atlanta native’s onstage reputation precedes her – and not in a positive way.  Chan Marshall is a performer who wears her heart firmly on her sleeve and while her talent is never in dispute, the quality of her live performances frequently is. Past performances have attracted some rather savage reviews due to her reluctance onstage – she’s like the anti-Elvis Costello – you never know what to expect. Who can forget the cruelly abbreviated show at the Fly By Night in 2003?  A good show at The Astor in 2010 won back hearts but her last Festival show in 2013 was a clanger, with Marshall full of apologies. Happily, for this Valentine’s crowd, the fourth visit to Perth for the artist was marked by a mood of blissed-out grace.

Opening proceedings was Cross Bones Style, a fan favourite taken from what is widely considered her masterwork – 1998’s Moon Pix.  The crowd firmly in hand, Marshall’s soaring voice acted an aural beacon for the rest of the show.  Certainly there was little to see – a dimly lit stage, conspicuously devoid of any spotlight, kept the star well obscured.  But when you have a voice like Marshall’s, perhaps you don’t need visual input?  From the throaty whisper of He Turns Down to the anthemic Woman from her latest offering Wanderer, she sang without reserve, often with the barest accompaniment. Marshall’s voice is the focal point of her music – the instrumentation, while often gorgeous, drops away into the background. She always sounds as though she’s giving away parts of her soul when she sings – it is focused, intensely personal and raw. No wonder then that performance sometimes seems a task too great.

Musically speaking, it was a generous set – old gems set alongside newer material with snippets of covers and medleys – bits of Glen Campbell’s take on These Days; a line from Dark End of the Street – thrown in for good measure, but always incorporated and made her own. The more contemporary songs had an almost modal quality – stripped back to a single instrumental phrase that was then worked around and around with her vocals.  The effect was circular, almost hypnotic, the crowd lulled into a soft summer fugue.

The majesty of Marshall’s voice seems to attract a particularly high calibre of accompanists – past efforts have recruited The Dirty Three, Dave Grohl and Eddie Vedder.  For this series of shows, she plays with an accomplished band, including a remarkable multi-instrumentalist proficient on mellotron, bass and baritone guitar.  In the darkness of the staging, the players were all but anonymous, but the sonics spoke for themselves.  Marshall’s sparse songs were brought to vivid life, drawing upon an eclectic range of musical traditions (rock, blues, punk, soul) to create a distinctively minimalist sound, full of space and sadness.

Were her voice less impressive, or the weather not as beatific, the complete absence of stagecraft might have been disappointing. But as Marshall’s voice wafted over the still, warm air, the crowd was grateful.  “Thank you for accepting my soul!”  She said as she left the stage, seemingly as gratified by the experience as the sated crowd.

Pictured top: Cat Power. Photo Eliot Lee Hazel. 

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Author —
Varnya Bromilow

Varnya Bromilow is a happy dilettante who has worked as a journalist, advocate, oral historian, teacher and train driver. She spent 15 years with the ABC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and The West Australian and enjoys writing fiction. She loves guinea pigs and the thrill of a good slide.

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