Cat Power turned back the clock to start her set at the Lincoln Theatre recently. Twenty-one years ago, she released her album Moon Pix. Two of its mains themes are loneliness and disillusionment. The song “He Turns Down” references Chan Marshall’s feelings of alienation from religion, particularly in the line “I’m not saved he turned me down.”
It is perhaps ironic that “He Turns Down” began with the question, “Have you ever seen the face?” Chan has struggled over the years with performance anxiety and stage fright, and that might be why the stage at the Lincoln Theatre on Sept. 25 was lit mainly at the back, on her band, rather than with the spotlight directly on her. Wearing a long black dress, Cat Power was bathed in shadow, glimpses of her face rare and brief.
Later in the set, Cat Power returned to Moon Pix, singing “Cross Bones Style.” She wrote the song, along with four others, one night after a hallucinatory nightmare.
Chan sang a medley of songs next: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds’ “Into My Arms,” Percy Sledge’s “Dark End of the Street,” her own “I Don’t Blame You,” and Sinead O’Connor’s “I Am Spread Out on Your Grave.” Together, the songs almost form a sort of cycle: “Into My Arms” expressing a spiritual longing; “Dark End of the Street,” a doomed meeting; “I Don’t Blame You,” the story of a musician who won’t perform; and O’Connor’s song, the fateful coda.
Last year, Cat Power released the critically acclaimed album Wanderer, which drew on her influences in folk, soul, and blues. The deeply personal “Horizon,” addressed to her family, was shaded with Joni Mitchell’s influence. On “Robbin Hood,” which tackled the injustices perpetrated by the wealthy, Chan, whose voice has acquired a slight rasp, channeled Chrissie Hynde’s 1992 interpretation of Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released.”
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Where “Robbin Hood” and “In Your Face” engaged in Dylanesque wordplay, “Me Voy” reveled in simplicity. The language was simple, and the song only had two stanzas, arranged AABAB. “Good Woman,” from her earlier album You Are Free, took this simplicity even further, with Chan singing and a repeating a verse, then adding a few lines.
With “Song for Bobby,” Cat Power reached into her past and summoned that emotions that she had felt as a teenage rock fan. On the complex “Metal Heart,” she declared “I once was lost but now I’m found was blind / But now I see you.”
In addition to covering Nick Cave and Sinead O’Connor, Cat Power also covered the more recent “White Mustang” by Lana Del Rey. Lana sang with Cat on the song “Woman” on Wanderer.
Six years passed between the release of Wanderer and Cat Power’s previous album, Sun. Sun was a very different record, steeped in electronic sounds. Chan has largely veered away from that material recently but did include “Manhattan” in her set.
Cat Power’s voice, at times barely a whisper, but still firm, provided the vehicle her songwriting deserved. Chan Marshall has made excellent albums for years; it’s good to see her now coming into her own as a live performer.