“It is not the singer who sings the song but the song that sings the singer, and therefore in performance it is the singer, not the song, that is the aesthetic artifact, the work of art. In a perfect world, in the future, everyone will live this way.” —Greil Marcus, The Old, Weird America
I’m obsessed with bootlegs of Cat Power concerts. I have more than forty hours of amateur and professional recordings on my computer, and I’ve spent at least that many hours (probably double, triple, quadruple those hours) listening.
It’s medicinal, meditative, a method of evading the void.
For instance I can play the bootleg of the solo show from the Bumbershoot Festival—at the Opera House in Seattle, on September 6, 1999 (I love knowing the exact date and location of a performance, the recording a relic, a day otherwise irretrievable)—and one hour will elapse, in the present day’s chaos, with an increased degree of peace: Chan Marshall’s voice, the most comforting sound I’ve ever encountered.
Chan’s pivotal album The Greatest marked its tenth anniversary during the momentous year of 2016.
It’s an album that represents a turning point in her life and her career as Cat Power. Recorded over the course of three days in May 2005, at Ardent Studios in Memphis, and released on January 20, 2006, The Greatest was the outcome of a collaboration with an ensemble—including iconic musicians like Teenie Hodges—called the Memphis Rhythm Band.
Chan had composed the songs on piano and guitar without transcribing chords. After they were introduced, she played the songs solo, while her bandmates charted with the Nashville number system (a method of noting chord progression with numbers instead of letters). In Fader magazine, she said, “We would get into the studio and I would play a song. They’d listen to it and then Teenie would say, ‘Now Chan was that 5-5-1-5 or 5-1-1-5?’ [. . .] And then [they’d] go into the corner and work it out.”
So the band played a major role in crafting the album tracks. But the songs had been expanding—from early solo renditions to performances with the Memphis Rhythm Band and later with the Dirty Delta Blues—and continued to expand like galaxies.
During a concert and, to an extent, on its bootleg, we the audience witness the artist embodying their mythos, the ability and the behavior for which they’re renowned or notorious. At the same time the artist contradicts and undermines that mythos with their actuality, physicality, fallibility, mortality. Why can that be so enthralling? I think it’s the allure of the mysticism of creativity, that rare rapturous feeling we’re witnessing—and, by extension, capable of—creation against constant deterioration.
And the performance is a place where Chan achieves spontaneous precision—of pitch, of phrasing—which surpasses the engineered finish of the studio track. In person, in public, she excels at expressing the poignancy of significant grief undergone, as well as the optimism of having overcome it, and she’s able to spontaneously conjure the emotions that occasioned the song. In the tone of her voice I hear genuine empathy for the world’s sorrows, for each individual hardship—her emotional intelligence is unparalleled—and, via “the meticulous matching of mood with music through the medium of the voice” (Simon Critchley on Bowie), Chan’s tone exceeds language, containing all knowledge, all truth.
From here on, I want to orbit around her song “Could We,” because until I heard its bootleg versions, I too easily dismissed these two-minutes-twenty-three seconds on The Greatest.
Likely Cat Power’s most upbeat tune—honky-tonk horn section, sanguine bass-line, sugary lyrics—it has the charm of a romantic comedy theme song. (Indeed it was featured in a movie, Boyhood, playing on the car radio as the negligent father pulls over to scold his kids for being aloof, projecting his own aloofness onto the kids, as negligent fathers often do. I found it an odd pairing.)
For years, I skipped this track, kind of turned off by its effervescence.
Yet a narrative subtly unfolds—as blues tunes do—in deftly minimal movements: five sparse verses convey the anxieties of first flirtation, first date, first kiss, first sleepover, and proposal of a second date.
When asked about “Could We” in an interview on French television (station and date unknown), Chan said, “I was so happy.” She said, “I had separated from someone—the love of my life—” but then, “spring of last year—they say in all the songs, spring, the birds and bees and everything, sweet, and new life, fresh, you know—and I started dating again . . . I was really happy.”
Though early versions of the song possess a certain melancholy—wistful, pining, lonely (I listen and picture her nervously rocking in a rocking chair, on the front porch of a house along a dirt road, crooning to take her mind off waiting for a crush to call)—we’ll witness, through later versions, her demeanor brightening, her courage burgeoning.
“Could We” is the first song she sings on May 4, 2004, a solo show at the Earl in Atlanta.
This is its earliest known recording: incantatory, it’s an invocation (“Could we? Take a walk? Could we? Have a talk alone”) to the most intimate audience—so intimate that later in the set when someone repeatedly requests the song “Wealthy Man,” Chan says, “Dinette, will you please hush?” It’s her hometown audience—people who must’ve been at her first shows more than a decade earlier. (Second in the set will be “The Party”: “Good friends comin’ in, the party’s about to begin . . .”)
For the first twelve seconds of the bootleg, she strums back and forth between two chords—multiple websites state these “Could We” tabs are G and C; here they’re F and C sharp—she strums briskly, before she stops and says, “I gotta slow down.” (After the song she’ll explain: “I am trippin’ on Red Bull.”) She resumes, more pensive, expansive, windy, shimmery, pale bronze sunlight on a dirt road in spring. At thirty-three seconds, she utters the first note and the road turns into a pasture, rolling uninterrupted, for acres and acres.
One-minute-thirty-five-seconds later—on the word “soon” from the line “we kissed, fell in love too fast too soon”—her timbre (at its most supple, its most resonant) reaches a frequency—a struck church-bell, a blow to the eardrum (it makes me blink)—that gives me the sensation of opening: mind momentarily oblivious of body, merging with the abyss that is this universe.
Queen Elizabeth Hall—April 28, 2005—(a ninety-minute set) is the Goldberg Variations of Cat Power solo shows, and it has a tenor as green and gemlike as Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording.
It begins with a harrowing rendition of “Hate”—she warbles, “I hate myself,” she strums the guitar (blue so deep it’s practically black), “and I want to die.” (It ends with a reprise of this harrowing “Hate”—a rondure resembling the way the Aria commences and closes Bach’s Variations, so that it could be played on a loop, into infinity.)
I’ve found about ninety seconds of video footage of this show, and in it Chan’s hunched over the piano, face hidden behind long bangs, her disposition heavy with the freight of having a body, yet singing as though bereft of the songs she’d dissipate. It’s the sixteenth show of the year, and the seventh show of the month (less than two weeks after the first time I saw her on stage: April 16 at Purchase College), and she’s been touring essentially nonstop since 1996. Four days ago, she played in Stockholm. In two days, she’ll play in Glasgow. Next month, she’ll play eight dates in Australia. And the following month, she’ll make a breakthrough album in Memphis. But now, inside an auditorium on Belvedere Road at the edge of the Thames, she’ll sing eleven of the twelve songs that will comprise The Greatest, and they’re delicately drawn, darkly shaded sketches of what’s to come.
Eighteen minutes into the performance, she strums the intro to “Could We”—interval now F sharp and D—and that bluish blackness lightens, the atmosphere becomes capacious, cloudless sky, the repeating chords as steady as a stretch of highway, her voice soaring like a falcon overhead.
This is one of a few uplifted spots in a predominantly brooding performance. But no matter how depleted her energy may seem, she’s giving everything left to the songs, her whole consciousness concentrated on her breath, her body (as Allen Ginsberg observed of Bob Dylan) transforming into “a column of air”—the intake silent, so the output seems contiguous—a continuous tunnel of sound, pure sound.
If that Queen Elizabeth Hall bootleg is like Gould’s 1955 Goldberg Variations, then the Cat Power solo show at the Malibu Performing Arts Center on August 25, 2006 is as austere as Gould’s 1981 recording of it (albeit lacking the circular quality of starting and ending with an identical melody).
At this point—a year and four months after the deep blues of Queen Elizabeth Hall—Chan has spent the past four months touring with the Memphis Rhythm Band, and her presence seems emboldened by having had their support. (When she sings “Hate”—third in the set—she sings, “I do not hate myself and I do not want to die.”)
However, she’s hypercritical of the sound, perhaps unused to the nudity of performing by herself. Right after “Hate” she quibbles that the guitar is “crispy” and later that the piano is “hot” as she frequently pauses to ask for more reverb. “I just love reverb on the vocal,” she tells the audience. “When there’s like a lot of room, I tend to project more, and relax.”
Despite that, the overall climate is more clement than at Queen Elizabeth Hall; its colors warmer, yellower. Halfway through the set, she strums that “Could We” interval—this time back to F and C sharp—and it’s so relaxed, a summer weekend, no plans, I call to see if you’re free, and you are, and you meet me.
Tonight she sings it at the higher reaches of her range, where in Atlanta and London she sang low (in her low register, the notes reach out to embrace her voice; in the higher register, her voice reaches out to grasp the notes). Tonight the word “we” goes up the scale after the word “could” (hopeful) where in Atlanta and London “we” went down the scale (doubtful).
My favorite part of this show is two-thirds through, after a performance of “Remember Me”—so exquisite, so excruciating that one morning it made me press my hands against my face and sob in rhapsody—when the audience bursts into applause and she says into the microphone, apologetically, “That sucked.”
Here the Cat Power mythos is endearingly embodied: a superhuman feat, an act of supreme beauty, undercut by humble self-deprecation—extreme perfectionism that’s seldom satisfied.
That Malibu set is rivaled by a nearly duplicate set, a month later at the Boston Museum of Fine Art. Here she plays “Could We” rather late, three songs from the end, as an afterthought (“Did I play this one yet?” she asks, strumming A and D). Nevertheless it’s a clearing in the mountainous forest of this performance.
The recording I have is from the second show of the night. Over the decades she has done dozens of double-headers (one turned into a single prolonged concert—a nearly four-hour bootleg—on November 20, 2013 at the Grog Shop in Cleveland), but in Boston on September 5, 2006 she seems more strained than the previous month in Malibu.
Beginning with “House of the Rising Sun” and abruptly abandoning it for “Love and Communication,” she keeps stopping to ask for more reverb.
(Later in the set, she’ll say to the soundman, “If there’s any reverb in the monitor you might want to take it out.” Then to the audience, “The last show—the sound tends to get equalized as the hour and a half goes by, so then it’s a different sound than it was in the beginning, so I’m coming back out and wishing that it was the way that it was at the beginning, but it’s become something that it was in the end of the last.”)
Right now, though, after ten minutes of false starts, she explains, “It’s hard to sing when it’s real tight like that . . . like when you’re singing in the shower, you don’t sing against the tile.” She laments, “The last show sounded more open.”
Flash forward: 2013, during an interview with German television show Aspekte, Chan recounts a memory from childhood: after gym class she’d wait until she was alone in the locker room and then she’d sing in the tiled showers, which had, she recalls, “the most amazing reverb.” Her peers overheard and asked her to sing for them. “That was probably the first time I performed,” she says.
Studying the Cat Power records chronologically (as I did in one sitting—Christmas 2016—after buying a new turntable [sadly excluding her second album Myra Lee, which hasn’t been and should be pressed on vinyl] spinning for almost six hours straight), a trajectory emerges: the pursuit of openness—to approximate the original reverb Chan accessed in youth—the pursuit of the open that precedes our existence, and the open that awaits us after. The sound nothing but air.
“Now that we’ve been playing live it’s so much more open and there’s so much more room for [the band] as individuals to move and shimmy in the songs,” she says in an interview on September 18, 2006, coinciding with a concert for Austin City Limits.
Accompanied by twelve musicians—two backup singers, three string-players, a drummer, trumpeter, saxophonist, bassist, keyboardist, Doug Easley on pedal steel, and Teenie Hodges on guitar—she’s becoming a frontwoman. Almost completely confident at the microphone, she dances spiritedly, though somewhat bashfully, vulnerable without the shield of an instrument. Still it’s a far cry from Queen Elizabeth Hall seventeen months earlier. Grooving with the band—intuitive vibes between them, intimately understanding each other (they’re listening closely, they’re cohering)—together they radiate verve, vibrancy. The arrangements are solid, polished, while allowing for improvisational flourishes—they have fun with it—their personalities shine through because they incarnate the songs as corporeally as she does.
Supposedly more than two hours of songs were filmed, though only thirty minutes aired. The best moment is a medley of “Cross Bones Style” and “Nude as the News” that builds to an ecstatic climax, the instruments vamping as Susan Marshall repeats He’s related to you, he’s related to you and Queen Ann Hines chants Un-believable, un-believable, un-believable things things things things, while Chan hollers Hater, I have your diamonds—those lines overlapping again and again.
“I never really thought I was a singer,” she says in the interview, though this isn’t the first group she’s toured with. In the 90s—performing with Glen Thrasher and Mark Moore, Tim Foljahn and Steve Shelley, Mick Turner and Jim White—she’d stand to the side, sometimes with her back to the audience, or averting her eyes, often far from the microphone, without much more emphasis on her voice than on the drums and guitars. The bootlegs from this era are engulfed in the instruments—psychedelic, Hendrix-style guitars and crashing drums—sometimes drowning the voice, the voice not yet afloat; ajar compared to the open door it became.
By this time, at Austin City Limits, Chan has realized that singing’s her calling, and she’s discovering how to manipulate her body to maximize its vocal capacity, using exaggerated facial expressions to modulate and amplify the sound, the sound then propelled, by eccentric gestures of her arms and hands, into the ether.
“Could We” is the one song she plays on guitar, strumming her Danelectro U1, her longtime road guitar.
She plays another solo set at the Earl in Atlanta, on October 22, 2006, two and a half years after the first set illustrated in this piece. “Could We” is one of two songs I’ve found recordings of, and three different videos are posted online.
F sharp and D. Rusty light. If the song in 2004 sounded like springtime, this is the middle of autumn. If, in 2004, it sounded like embarking into the open, now she’s returning from the journey. (At the end of the second recorded song—“Say”—Dinette’s distinctive voice cries, once again, “Wealthy Man!”). It’s Chan’s sixtieth performance of the year, yet she’s undaunted, no trace of fatigue, at least in this minute-and-a-half of “Could We” she’s lighthearted, she sits, the Danelectro on her knee, she strums—bouncing in the chair like she wants to go faster and faster—she sings, thick with Dylan-esque inflection, projecting as though the band’s there behind her, she beams at the audience between verses. “That’s a song about doin’ it in the afternoon,” she jokes in an exaggerated Southern accent after finishing.
This is her last concert with the Danelectro, which will be broken at the next show. It’s also the last solo set she’ll play for the next seven years, until September 18, 2013.
Six days after that Atlanta set—October 28, 2006—the Memphis Rhythm Band takes to the Snake Eyes Stage at the Vegoose festival in Las Vegas.
This video footage is tinted hazy greenish gold, imbued with the temperature of an unseasonably mild afternoon. I’ve watched it so many times I can’t listen to the isolated audio without imagining that aura.
“The Greatest” kicks off this set, as it does most (if not all) of the recent shows with the band. One thing that sets each apart is whether Chan climbs up or tumbles down the scale on the second syllable of the word “parade” in the phrase “the later parade.” Here she climbs up to where the oxygen is thin. My preference is the tumble down, verdant valley (which she does most gracefully at the incandescent Later with Jools Holland performance of June 20, 2006, where Teenie rises from his chair during the apex of “Lived in Bars” with the awe of a blind person suddenly able to see).
Now, at Vegoose, three days before Halloween, fifteen minutes into the set, a stagehand approaches her.
“I guess the guitar never came,” she says to him.
“It came but it’s broken,” he responds.
“What do you mean?”
“The guitar’s broken.”
His answer is inaudible. She’s taken aback and then she’s shocked.
“‘Could We’ without guitar?” asks the pianist, Rick Steff.
Pacing the stage, she turns to the crowd and shouts, “My guitar’s broken!”
The band launches into “Could We” and Chan looks like she doesn’t know what to do with her hands. She fumbles the lyrics of the final two verses, and when the instruments hold the last chord, she says into the mic, “I’m distracted. I’m distracted.”
But she recovers. The most open occurrence, or span, starts about ten minutes later, a mellow rendering of her sullen lullaby “The Moon.” Here her voice is wholly warmed up, flexible, so nimble it’s almost impossible to believe a human being can utter such sounds, as spherical as the moon in full.
To close the show, the band flanks Chan and they link arms in a chorus-line for an acapella cover of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” At the end they playfully scat, and in the final seconds as she intones the word “who”—it is absolute, singular—it rings, it rises into the firmament.
Two months later—December 6, 2006—in Rennes, France: the Transmusicales Festival. Professional video footage of this show is on YouTube, and it’s on par with the legendary concerts on film.
Transmusicales finds Chan at her most energetic by far, and at her most chic—black fingerless gloves, sleek black blouse with a big billowy black bowtie, skinny black pants, white ankle-length leather boots, hair in a messy bun—she personifies sophistication, vitality.
Now touring with The Dirty Delta Blues—Judah Bauer, Gregg Foreman, Erik Paparazzi, Jim White—she has brought together transcendental entertainers, a charismatic group of instrumentalists who go to a higher psychic plane when making music. And this rendition of “Could We” is all about them.
It’s second in the set (after “The Greatest”) and while they play the intro—D-D-D-C, D-D-D-C on the bass plucked like a confident stride, staccato snare drum—Chan says into the mic, “Sad and groovy. Sad and groovy.”
They jam for a while, adoringly, as though diligently priming a massive canvas for the brushstrokes of voice. Judah plays some sexy, subtle riffs on the guitar. Gregg has a lit cigarette in his mouth and an unlit cigarette behind his ear, he slaps a tambourine on his hip and claps it against his palm. When he sits down at the organ and swipes at the keys it sounds cosmic, celestial. He shouts, “One, two, one two three!”
Since her sound has encompassed a pasture, a dirt road, a highway, the endless sky, here at Transmusicales it’s a bridge—a suspension bridge—steely, towering, spanning two shores (self-consciousness, self-confidence), reaching and reaching. Especially here, Chan (as Alex Ross wrote of Björk) “combines precision of pitch with force of feeling” in perilous equilibrium; her expressive intensity comes close to—but never ends up—compromising tonal accuracy.
Ross: “If you throw a lot emotion into your voice, you will easily lose control of the pitch. If you focus on the pitch, you will find it difficult to convey emotion. Something tremendous must be happening in the brain when a singer is able to escape that double bind.”
Three quarters through “Could We”, Chan finishes the fourth verse and walks away from the mic. The band keeps grooving: Erik sways to and fro with the bass on his hip, bobbing his head. Jim has boyish joy in his eyes, a devilish smile. The camera zooms in and out on their faces, their fingers, guitar strings, high-hat. For about one-and-a-half-minutes Judah riffs some more while Chan consults about something (the sound? A bit later she’ll say, “I wish it was louder, this room is too big for us”) in earnest with Gregg, who then counts them off again—“One, two, one two three!”—before she delivers the final verse: “Thank you, it was great . . .”
I listen and think of the lyric from “Lived in Bars”—which they play in this set—“Who’s gonna play drums, guitar, or organ with chorus,” and I don’t think she imagined, when she wrote the line, that she would eventually find a group of musicians so synched, so simpatico.
January 23, 2007, in Paris, at the Chanel Haute Couture Spring fashion show, Chan and the guys are set up on a riser, behind an audience in stadium seating around what looks like a gymnastics mat emblazoned with the Chanel logo, where waifish models parade in luxurious garments.
Chan wears the same outfit that she wore last month at Transmusicales, except with black boots instead of white, hair in a high ponytail instead of a bun. Gregg, Erik, and Judah wear sunglasses and all black clothes, Jim wears a white collared-shirt.
It’s peculiar to see them perform behind the audience, the audience’s attention cast in the opposite direction, which has a noticeable effect on the music. The musicians are more laidback without the pressure of the crowd’s scrutiny, while also stricter and swifter with the rhythm as the models rely on a regular cadence to keep step.
I call this short set The Catwalking Blues:
- “Naked If I Want To” (Would you let me walk down your street?)
- “Could We” (Could we? Take a walk?)
- “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” (When I’m driving in my car)
- “Tracks of My Tears” (When you see me walking down the street with another boy).
Then they play the “Could We” intro as Karl Lagerfeld walks onto the runway and blows a kiss to Chan.
The songs were well-suited for this Chanel collection: urbane, refined, smartly curated and impeccably crafted, fresh like a prematurely spring morning, the breeze of May in January.
More than a year later—a year that Cat Power and the Dirty Delta Blues spent playing multiple shows each month, across America and around the globe (which Chan would continue to do nearly every month of the coming years, and does only slightly less frequently today)—on May 30, 2008, in Barcelona, at the Primavera Sound Festival, the set has changed to mostly Jukebox tunes (Jukebox: the record following The Greatest, the record whereon her voice epitomizes openness) and never before have I seen her more empowered—she moves like Jagger and belts like Janis—this show is all about Chan.
Singing with the mic in hand rather than on a mic stand, she can navigate the stage, lunge and jump and use her whole body to form the tone. Although many times she looks offstage, points to the microphone and then points upward (a signal meaning “more reverb”), the vocals are richly reverberant (her voice actually echoes at the end of certain phrases).
In the latter half of the set, while the band plays the intro to “Could We,” Gregg says, “Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, let me get one second of your time, the woman you came to see—”
“Me,” she bellows. “Me! Me me me me me me me me, one two, one-two three four!”
Hearing (sometimes seeing) these musicians attain that barely attainable state of sublimity—to be so liquefied by the music they’re making that they’re on the verge of being vaporized—I orchestrate my own sublimity: I sing along, and so I am sung, into the next second, and then the next, calmer, lighter, a little changed.
Returning to the studio recording of “Could We” for the first time in a long time, what immediately strikes me is how, in classic Cat Power style, two vocal tracks play simultaneously: the upper and the lower ranges, as though the singer from Atlanta in 2004 is harmonizing with the singer from Atlanta in 2006, a harmony that—reverberating—exemplifies the open.
And how the title “Could We” is open: an open question—no verb, no object, no punctuation—all subject: the consumption of subject as object. Like love can be.
While promoting her most recent album Sun in 2012, during an interview for Spotify, when asked what five albums shaped her life, Chan said, “Five albums that made me who I am at forty? The first one would be a bootleg that I can’t find by Otis Redding.”
When she was twelve, she found in her father’s music collection a reddish orange record-sleeve bearing the image of a man in a sharkskin suit.
“The first song on that record is called ‘These Arms of Mine’ [. . .] When you put the needle down, the first thing I heard was glass.” She clinked a glass, then bellowed, “These arms of mine!”
The concert was supposedly in Paris, and for years she has perused “Live in Paris” albums, but hasn’t been able to find that specific performance.
She said, “That’s the one that electrocuted my brain.”
On June 4, 2017, a bootleg surfaced just two days after Chan’s solo show at Het Depot in Louvain, Belgium. The recording—unbelievably clear, superior quality—comprises thirty-five tracks (one-hour-fifty-four-minutes) containing almost an album’s-worth of originals that are, for now, unreleased:
- “Wanderer” (a brand-new song)
- “Old Detroit” (a pseudo cover of Dylan’s “Hard Times in New York Town”)
- “Nothing Really Matters”
- “Brave Liar”
- “Let Me Go” (an alternate version recorded with Cassius was released as “Feel Like Me” on their album Ibifornia in 2016)
- “Framboise et Gitanes” (a ditty she busked on the sidewalks of Paris two decades ago).
Chan asks for more reverb only once.
The standout—in this instantly quintessential addition to the canon of Cat Power bootlegs—is a cover of Rihanna’s “Stay” on piano: one-minute-thirty-seconds into the song, Chan holds the word “who” on a gliding high-A, for four seconds that seem boundless, open and opening, embracing (as Hilton Als wrote of Chan’s voice in 2003) “the blues sound of trouble in mind everywhere.”
And then “Stay” seamlessly segues into a performance of “The Greatest” where her voice is at its brightest, warmest, as limber as ever, brilliantly nuanced, voluminous and vast.
In the poem “Pollock and Canvas,” Jorie Graham imagines that moment just prior to Pollock’s flung paint landing on the blank:
the line being fed out the line without shape before it lands without death
saying a good life is possible, still hissing, still unposited,
before it lands, without shape, without generation, or form . . .
To be as close as possible to a point of origin—to be before form (thus distanced—or distracted—from the disappointments of life, the inevitability of death)—because we rarely achieve this in reality, I think a lot of us seek that in art. I found it in Cat Power bootlegs.