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Laura Musselman
Cat Power, with J. Tillman

The Moore

Thursday, Oct. 21

When Chan Marshall played the Showbox (before they added, "at the Market") in

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Cat Power Strolls Through a Gracious Set at the 5th Avenue Theatre Last Night. J. Tillman Shrugs His Way Through Some Soft Ones

catpower5th1.jpg
Laura Musselman
Cat Power, with J. Tillman

The Moore

Thursday, Oct. 21

When Chan Marshall played the Showbox (before they added, "at the Market") in November of 2006, the woman who performs as Cat Power left the stage abruptly toward the end of a night during which she complained of stomach pains and had a hard time keeping her pants zipped up. A famously erratic performer prone to on-stage fits and meltdowns, this was nothing shocking. More impressive than surprising, however, was how her band - dubbed the Memphis Rhythm Band -- reacted, or rather, how they didn't.

The ensemble of consummate professionals just vamped. Featuring Mabon "Teenie" Hodges - AL Green's onetime songwriting partner - on lead guitar, and a band that included a full horn section, backup singers, and a musician for just about every other noisemaker in the cabinet, just kept its cool. Then something in the wings caught the keyboardist's eye and effortlessly and without warning, he put his hand in the air and casually, but deliberately cued his colleagues. Bam! Up goes a most stirring rendition "Satisfaction," one that saw Marshall return to the stage briefly, yet triumphantly, before being helped off by members of her big band.

For a notoriously unpredictable and volatile performer like Marshall, having a strong center is crucial. And as she loudly whispered, roared, and scampered through her set at the 5th Avenue Theatre last night, it was clear that the gripping show was made possible by the stability and comfort provided her by The Dirty Delta Blues Band, her quartet of reverent, deferential sidemen. It's the kind of experience that makes one realize what kind of winning formula opener J. Tillman could carve out for himself, if he chose to apply himself.

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Thursday's set leaned heavily on Jukebox, Cat Power's 2008 collection of (mostly) covers. She hit "Lord, Help the Poor & Needy," "Silver Stallion," and ever snuck in a bit of Jackson Browne's "These Days" into her own, incredible Jukebox original, "Song to Bobby."

Two things were made clear during the evening: 1. Judging from the new material, we're in for a lot more of the full-band, soul-inspired Cat Power we've heard since 2006's The Greatest; 2. The crowd is still pining for the old numbers. Indeed, there was perhaps no greater show of appreciation than in response to the oldie, "Good Woman."

All night, every song was fluid, constantly changing shape and texture. What made the set so riveting was not the band's mastery of the arrangements, which seem to be as unpredictable as Marshall herself, but witnessing them work through the experiment together, with the band in honorable servitude of the frontwoman, she at the mercy of the audience.

To say thank you, Marshal passed out white flowers to several people in the audience, then crumpled up set lists and hurled them into the crowd.

Tillman, on the other hand, wasn't nearly as gracious to his hometown crowd. He either feigned disinterest, or is unselfconscious about presenting himself as a self-important brat.

The singer and songwriter--who also plays drums and sings backup with Fleet Foxes--is among the most underutilized talents in town. His voice is unique, smooth, and catching. And if he had a band (he too often chooses to fly soft and solo) that was willing to push him, and hold him accountable the way Marshall's men do, I think we'd all walk away with a higher regard for the songs on display.

Overhead in the Crowd: "Turn down the bass!" yelled very loudly during a silent moment. Cat Power shows are magnets for men and women who want their one-liners heard. And the bass turned down.

Speaking of the crowd: It was pretty thin. We moved off the floor after Tillman, and up to the balcony. The front section was full, but the much larger back portion was completely empty.

BTW: The 5th Avenue Theatre is an absolute treasure. It's a shame that there are so few rock shows there. Sitting in the balcony - even in the dark of a show - gives you the chance to take in some of the ornate beauty of the room. Your next chance to get in there for a show is She & Him on Saturday.

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