Gig review – Cat Power @ Enmore Theatre (2013)

After a painfully drawn-out guitar intro, Chan Marshall makes her way onto stage. Now sporting a spiky blonde haircut, she seems a frail figure and her off-mic coughing and constant interaction with the sound desk seem like nervous tics.

But the devotion of her fans is clear and from the rapturous applause the second she steps on stage, you can almost feel people willing her on, wanting her to succeed.

Having endured lengthy battles with debilitating illness and stage fright and developed a reputation as a reluctant performer, she has seemingly found a way to make it work now. She says very little but when she does talk it seems heartfelt and completely spontaneous.

Even with a five-piece band in tow, the sound is surprisingly sparse and the focus is firmly on her vocals. It is crucial then that her singing is just right, and thankfully they are – from the first moments of the first tune, standout torch song ‘The Greatest’, her voice is warm and richly textured, and it is clear she is in command of her hugely expressive instrument.

What follows isn’t a crowd-pleasing greatest hits set, but instead a subdued, sustained mood piece focusing heavily on most recent record Sun.

The lighting is often minimal, drowning the band in a single colour or cloaking them in almost complete darkness, complementing the long, slow grooves and stark renditions of what is already bare bones songcraft.

Seen in some quarters as an uncharacteristically upbeat record, the weariness and pervading sadness of Sun becomes even more clear in a live setting, where the downbeat nature of the likes of ‘Always On My Own’ is the norm and the glimpses of optimism in songs like ‘Ruin’ and ‘Human Being’ stand out for their dogged resilience.

This is music that follows no recognisable trends and feels completely out of time, more inspired by blues standards and soul balladry than anything contemporary.

The zen-like ‘Manhattan’ is one of her most wistful works, an unhurried reflection on the “The hotel above and the street below / People come and people go / All the friends that we used to know ain’t coming back.

Though it’s hard to pick and choose between songs in a set that seems more like one long piece than different components, the moving ‘Nothing But Time’, a sprawling, personal song apparently written for her ex’s young daughter, is hard not to single out.

There’s something of a nod to Australian music with a cover of The Boys Next Door’s ageless ‘Shivers’ and even sections of INXS’s enduring hit ‘Never Tear Us Apart’, before Marshall collects a bunch of flowers and throws them into the crowd, looking at her most relaxed and even joyful as people scramble for a memento from their hero.

An almost unrecognisable version of one of her very best songs, ‘I Don’t Blame You’, an affecting portrait of an artist struggling with the expectations of their audience, ends the set and it seems fitting there is no encore, the show having worked as one unbroken whole.

She seems reluctant to leave the stage, finally pausing at the exit to wave to everyone one last time. For someone who has long been known as a reticent performer, there’s something moving about her seeming to have found her niche and not wanting to let go of this rare connection with the audience.

The feeling, it seems, is well and truly mutual.  “I love you!” someone yells at one point, seemingly overcome by the moment. “I love you more” Marshall mumbles back.

Originally appeared in: Tone Deaf 

Blondie & The Stranglers, Enmore Theatre, 6th December 2012

DANIEL HERBORN discovers that The Stranglers still have it and punk legends Blondie wouldn’t ever do anything as uncool as pandering to what their audience wants.

You know you’ve got some pulling power when your support band has 23 Top 40 singles. That’s the UK track record of The Stranglers, who rose to fame (or more accurately, infamy) during the punk explosion. Influenced by that movement’s energy and spite without ever neatly fitting into it, The Stranglers were initially dismissed as bandwagon jumpers and misogynist yobs, yet their music has proven strangely enduring and its sense of strangeness remains undimmed.

Featuring a 74-year-old drummer and a ring-in lead singer, The Stranglers circa 2012 may be rubbish on paper, but they are dynamite in reality. Dressed all in black, like a uniform, they are a purposeful unit and Baz Warne makes a menacing, more than capable replacement for the original but long-departed frontman Hugh Cornwell.

The greatest hits set takes in the surging nostalgia of 1986 hit ‘Always The Sun’, a paranoid, clattering version of the controversial ‘Peaches’ and a funeral-march paced, pitch black cover of ‘Walk On By’.

A rare detour into new material comes in the form of ‘Mercury Rising’ which is a strong addition to their canon, featuring an almost spoken-word rave from Warne and some howling guitar work. They’re soon back to the classics though with ‘Golden Brown’, its instantly memorable harpsichord hook and haunting, lysergic rhythm making for a hypnotising highlight. Most bands never write a song this good.

In a tight, filler-free set their cover of The Kinks’ ‘All Day and All of the Night’ stands tall, before the title track of their best album ‘No More Heroes’ brings their set to a triumphant finish.

Recently Blondie’s Clem Burke told FL that “we were almost the perfect band”, a statement that at once seems outlandish, melancholy and difficult to refute. That sense of past perfection hangs over tonight’s set, in which the towering pop highlights and ongoing star power of Debbie Harry are the dominant themes.

Dressed in three-quarter length red pants, with a gold jacket, glitter-skull belt buckle and red-tinted ponytail, Debbie Harry looks equal parts glamorous and ridiculous, still every bit a rock star. For the first few songs, which include a raucously received ‘Hanging On The Telephone’, the delirium is such that it’s almost irrelevant what they sound like, the experience of being at a Blondie show being more important to a mainly middle-aged, often drunk audience hungry for nostalgia and familiarity.

“At one point Harry whips her sunglasses off, a gesture that gets a bigger response than some of the new songs. ”

Harry’s voice is still as refreshing and clear as cool water and she remains a charismatic figure. When a friend asks me a few songs in about Burke’s drum shield, I realise that I haven’t actually looked at the drummer, or any of the other members of the band at all, such is the dominance of Harry. At one point she whips her sunglasses off, a gesture that gets a bigger response than some of the new songs. Later, she hides at the back of the stage, apparently to let the others have a much-deserved share of the spotlight.

When the initial excitement wears off, new songs like ‘D-Day’ and ‘Wipe Off My Sweat’ prove to be perfectly serviceable pieces of dance pop, but fail to elicit much of a response. ‘What I Heard’- another track from last year’s largely ignored Panic of Girls – has a cruisy disco feel. It’s fine, but again finds the band at odds with its audience.

‘The Tide Is High’ fares better, a kind of easy listening reggae torch tune- virtually unknown in the pop world until Blondie covered it – it’s a shining example of a band making a song their own. ‘Atomic’, meanwhile, is huge and ‘Call Me’, featuring some choice keytar action, pulses with energy.

The strange pop of ‘Mother’ segues into an unlikely, but winning version of the Beastie Boys’ classic ‘No Sleep ‘Til Brooklyn’, before the encore begins with a solid (if inessential) cover of Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s ‘Relax’. The endpoint and pinnacle is of course, ‘Heart of Glass’. A completely perfect slice of pop and a sunny, detached ode to romantic indifference (how many other pop songs have ever shrugged off infatuation as “a pain in the ass”?) Bringing a close to this uneven but enjoyable show, it’s a reminder that Blondie wouldn’t ever do anything as uncool as pandering to what their audience wants.

Originally appeared in: FasterLouder