Earlier, as I rolled through riverside shadows towards the lights of Perth city, I didn’t know what Cat Power was going to do when she started her show in half an hour. I didn’t know how her show the previous night had gone, and I didn’t really know what Cat Power (aka Chan Marshall) was up to these days at all. All I knew was that the air was warm and the sky was Egyptian blue and freckled with bright stars, and as we rounded the bend, there was the horizon, all chunky with apartment buildings, and rising from it a colossal golden dome, a luminous balloon. It was the moon – giant, low and smoldering, the best moon I think I ever saw. Cat Power has a song called The Moon, and it’s a good one, a simple tune with southern rock guitar licks and drawling organ to match. Perhaps she’ll play it tonight, but maybe not.
I didn’t think anything would impress me after that moon – it really was a good one. But by the time we got to Northbridge, Chevron Festival Gardens shone and dazzled and popped like Chinese New Year, and it sucked us in easily. We’d barely had time to admire the hills-hoist fountain, the recycled timber fences, the elaborate mobile vinyl DJ contraption and the countless suspended lanterns before the sound of a guitar began to ring out from the stage.
The notes belong not to Chan Marshall herself but to a guitarist offsider, a waifish character who more closely resembles the long-haired, short-fringed, nymph-like Cat Power that most will recall from yesteryear. She picks a slow, steady, almost ominous arpeggio before the band – keys, thick decisive drums, bass guitar – kicks in, and Marshall struts onstage (yes – I think she struts. Or all the black denim and peroxide create the illusion of strutting). Eyelids closing, she croons the opening lines of “The Greatest” – and it swells to a dense, moody arrangement of the song, with Marshall’s voice comfortably ensconced in the limelight. I guess, with all the talk of dysfunctional shows over the years, I expected a dysfunctional sounding voice. Instead what trickles out is something rich, silvery, enigmatic, clear and honest all at once. Pitch-perfect, but never sterile. “Cherokee,” follows, the sanguine opener to Power’s latest album resounding triumphiantly through the amphitheatre; then “Silent Machine” enters the equation, clearing out the cobwebs with its shameless cock-rock riffing. Indeed, it’s an odd song to hear emerge from a Cat Power stage – while Cat Power has long filtered blues and classic rock through her whistful lens, never before has she delivered a track so bluntly rockin. I mean you could play this thing over the PA at the Motorplex and no-one would question it. Anyway, it makes way for “Manhattan,” “Human Being,” and the alluring but overlong “King Rides By,” which languishes in spring reverb stabs and aloof vocal melodies. Cat Power doesn’t play “The Moon” after all, but inevitably we hear “Sun,” the title track off her latest record, and soon she’s singing in Spanish, covering a song called “Angelitos Negros,” which segues into the eerie harmonica-laden throb of “Always on my own.”
So far, my expectations – vague as they’d been – were totally usurped. I figured Chan Marshall would do a bunch of solo numbers, I figured bits would be messy and raw and exposed, I supposed there’d be more quietude than loudness. None of the above; from start to finish this is a rock band in full swing. The whole thing is more polished than a bowling ball, too. The only hint of Cat Power’s legendary ramshackle comes with her banter; brief, impenetrable ravings about ash paste (?), Australia and other word-scraps. Her songs are far more eloquent, and luckily they come far thicker and faster. “Nothing but Time” – yet another new track – arrives with its buzz-synth and sitar droning, boasting a ballad melody that would sit comfortably in the mouth of Mick Jagger. “I Don’t Blame You,” is reworked into a rhodes-driven, soulful expanse, before the gritty “Peace and Love,” and the pseudo-salsa-disco of single “Ruin” close the book on Cat Power’s 2013 Perth visit. Before the set’s out, Marshall manages to throw a number of large white flowers to crowd members, being sure to make eye contact with each recipient.
There’s no encore. It feels nice that way. The band leaves, Chan Marshall does a little dance and waves at her loyal fans before walking off with rap music playing. The smoke-machine smoke disperses, we wander out to sip and lounge on the gold-lit knoll. Tonight’s was a set that reshaped my very incomplete conception of Cat Power, and made me curious about where she could take her music in the near future, given the curious, hit-and-miss move towards rock arrangements and synthetic sounds. But more than that, it was a perfect night of glimmering good moods and satisfied smiles, souls milling and swirling in the peerless festival gardens, under a majestic moon. At one point Chan Marshall stops between songs to exclaim about the ‘magic’ sound she receives in her in-ear monitors, and how she wishes we could all have magic earbuds. I’m not sure exactly what she was hearing, but I’m convinced there was already more than your recommended dietary intake of enchantment in the air.