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 

Tegan and Sara, Sydney Opera House, 26th April 2013

DANIEL HERBORN gets a taste of TEGAN AND SARA’s new pop stylings at the Sydney Opera House.

In most walks of life maturity is a good quality, but for pop bands it can often be a kiss of death. It’s a trap Tegan and Sara have sidestepped on their latest record ‘Hearthrob’, which instead of “maturity” opts for a slick pop aesthetic that seems made for shopping malls and sized for arenas. It’s big, fun and unabashedly pop – a record clearly unconcerned with the vague yet powerful notion of indie credibility. A decade and a half into their career, they’re producing their most youthful sounding music in years.

While an obvious stylistic departure from previous work which sometimes saw them pegged as indie folk or pop-punk, the melodrama of chart pop has always been a feature of what they do – the setlist on a previous tour featured a cover of Rihanna’s top 40 masterpiece ‘Umbrella’. The new synth-heavy, ‘80s-referencing stuff is perhaps too easy to dismiss on first listen as a collection of shiny but shallow pop baubles. However, Hearthrobtracks ‘Goodbye, Goodbye’ and ‘I Couldn’t Be Your Friend’, which both feature early in the set, show a depth and emotional complexity that establishes Robyn as the best reference point.

The audience at tonight’s Sydney Opera House performance skews young, but it’s probably the older songs that get the most enthusiastic response; the intricate and urgent ‘The Con’ and the terrific ‘Back In Your Head’ being greeted warmly. ‘Alligator’ demonstrates their knack of writing seemingly simple songs with awesome staying power and ‘Walking With a Ghost’ retains all its raw-boned energy and vitality.

Always a chatty band, much of their conversation tonight ends up circling back to the weird and fascinating theme of fandom, with hilarious, self-effacing anecdotes about meeting their teen idols (Billy Corgan) and slightly less credible pre-teen pop crushes (The New Kids on The Block), and being disappointed that the experience didn’t amount to much.

One of the reasons Tegan and Sara have such a loyal fanbase is their charm and honesty, a sense of openness and a habit of peppering every show with self-deprecating tales of their unglamorous lives on the road. Whether they’re passionately advocating for marriage equality, discussing the embarrassing tourist photos they took at the Sydney Opera House on previous tours, or wondering out loud whether they can just go ahead and tweet Billy Corgan now, they’re the most likeable of bands.

They’re now in the strange position where fans meet them and feel as overwhelmed and emotional as they did meeting their heroes. At one point Sara mentions how she senses everyone in the audience are lovely, genuine people, but that she could be “off” with this feeling and we could actually be “a bunch of dickbags”. It’s a funny moment, but also a telling one. As if to underline the uneasy dynamic that can exist between a band and its hardcore fans, they later have to tell one such fan – who says she has flown all the way from Ireland to be here and wants a hug – to move away from the front of stage.

The bigger fanbase brings with it bigger venues though, and they seem both proud and self-conscious about bringing their pop songs into the rarified surrounds of the Opera House. At one point Sara comes out with the theory that an Opera House gig is like a wedding, where the guests initially feel stifled by their formal surroundings before eventually kicking back into drunken party mode. The atmosphere has definitely tilted towards the club by the back end of the set, which takes in the slick but thoughtful ‘I’m Not Your Hero’, the windblown epic ballad ‘Now I’m All Messed Up’ and ‘Closer’, an irresistibly silly, fizzy dance pop song reminiscent of Katy Perry’s ‘Teenage Dream’.

After joking about the inevitability of an encore and the silliness involved in the charade of going off stage, they deliver the crowd-pleasing ‘Nineteen’, a song with lyrics as naked and plainly emotional as a teenage diary entry: “Flew back home to where we met / Stayed inside I was so upset”. It’s apparently the song fans are most likely to be seen crying to, which is perhaps unsurprising. It’s not their most sophisticated song, but it’s still their best. After this highpoint, a version of ‘Feel It In My Bones’, their underwhelming collaboration with trance megastar Tiesto, seems something of an anti-climax, but it doesn’t detract from the general mood of euphoria.

After a string of consistently strong albums that worked as variations on a theme, Tegan and Sara have changed things up with a shiny new pop makeover, finding themselves in an interesting and slightly awkward stage of their career. With ‘Hearthrob’ they’ve aimed bigger than before, but managed to retain what made them special. They’ve embraced a wider audience and find it embracing them back. But like a hug from a stranger, it’s equal parts warm and weird.

Originally appeared in: Faster Louder