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Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012

Cat Power @ Turner Hall Ballroom

Oct. 29, 2012

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CJ Foeckler
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Chan Marshall’s cough Monday night was a curious thing. It was persistent and discomforting, a constant distraction throughout the first half of her erratic performance, yet it seemed triggered not so much by illness or a catch in her throat than by her own inadequacy on stage—less a cough than a tick. The singer would botch a note or fall behind her band and she’d contort her face in displeasure, then let out a frustrated hack, usually into the fold of her arm, once or twice directly into her microphone.

And so for a while it seemed that Monday night might go down as one of those Cat Power shows, the kind where Marshall twitches and mumbles her way through false starts and aborted songs, playing a game of chicken with the audience to see who would cut short their stay first—indeed, by the set’s midpoint the crowd had already thinned out a bit, as fans worn down by the show’s slow start and two atrocious opening acts looked to cut their losses. But then something unexpected happened: Marshall pulled it together.

The change was complete halfway through the title tracks from her 2006 album The Greatest, one of only a handful of songs in the set she didn’t pull from her latest album, Sun. At first the song, like the singer, was as drowsy and disoriented, and she sang it as if on her last legs, seemingly without direction. Then her band kicked in it took a loud, powerful turn, and Marshall seemed reinvigorated. Her voice reclaimed its clarity. Her phrasing grew tighter, her posture more upright. The cough subsided, mostly. She hit a stride she maintained for the rest of the show, and when it was over she basked in the crowd’s adoration for minutes, waving, bowing, signing autographs and tossing them white roses from a proud bouquet.

If Marshall’s metamorphosis from scattered, seemingly infirm performer to consummate professional seemed almost too remarkable to believe, there might have been good reason for that. Most of her shows on this tour, to judge from the mixed reviews they’ve drawn, have followed this same script: They begin shaky, almost disastrously so, before Marshall finds the footing to stick a triumphant landing. One of two things is going on here: Either Marshall really is that slow to warm up on stage and she’s lucky if she can pull it together, or she’s throwing the opening of her set for dramatic effect, toying with the audience by playing on her reputation for instability. It was a credit to her performance Monday that no explanation seemed more feasible than the other. Does Marshall really have such control over her stage presence that she can feign having virtually no control? As she waved goodnight to the crowd, she flashed the smile of a woman who had either pulled off an improbable feat, or was sitting on a delicious secret.