Cat Power

By Heidi Baldwin

Riding the rolling brown-outs: One never knows if there's GHB in Cat Power's sonic drink

Chan Marshall ambled onstage, took a sip of whisky and said hello to the crowd in her trademark girly-gruff voice.

Too many bodies were packed into the Casbah last time she stopped in San Diego, the smoking patio eerily deserted as everyone at the sold-out show strained to get a glimpse of the elusive woman behind Cat Power.

A single spotlight illuminated a simple wooden chair. Marshall looked nervous as she sat down and picked up her acoustic guitar, self-conscious of the many eyes fixed on her.

"Hello, I'm Chan Marshall," she murmured into the microphone, her Southern-girl drawl detectable, but just barely.

A smattering of polite applause.

"We love you, Chan!" shouted a couple of well-wishers.

With long pianist fingers, Chan (pronounced "Shawn") began to strum her guitar softly, like she was playing in a room where someone was trying to sleep. She sang a measure or two and then stopped.

"I'm sorry, you guys, I haven't played that one in a while."

She started up again, strumming a little more confidently this time, singing a few measures in a clearer voice. And then she stopped again. And apologized.

"It's OK, Chan!" someone called out.

And it was, really. The first couple of times my heart went out to her. But then she kept doing it.

I wanted to give a time-out signal and form a huddle with Ms. Marshall. Chan, you've nothing to be sorry for, I would plead.

And if my girl still didn't look convinced, I'd have to bust out with the big guns. People have been standing here for hours just to hear you sing.

The point of a pep talk is to restore your team's spirit, and I was ready to lead Team Chan to glory at any cost. Two-four-six-eight, I know she'll get this song straight! Goooooo, Chan!

Instead, like everyone else, I listened patiently as she stammered through, until my legs and back began to ache. I went outside to smoke a cigarette and didn't go back in.

Some cheerleader I'd make.

In interviews, Marshall rejects the melancholy rap often thrown her way, describing her songs as cathartic, not depressing. Marshall's folksy, blues-tinged tunes are exactly that-the kind of music you want to hear after a long, shitty day-sleepy, afternoon porch songs that lull life's grime right out of your pores.

Marshall performs with confidence in the studio, working every note and fragile crack of her voice with utter precision. Her lyrics and arrangements are simple, but her vocals are gorgeous-one second clear and sweet like heated honey, gritty the next, seamlessly, beautifully.

Cat Power's new album, You Are Free, is Marshall's first original material in four years. And what an album it is.

First of all, Eddie Vedder ("E.V." on the album) lends his vocals on several songs. He sounds so good backing Marshall that he should really consider quitting his other gig.

Beyond celebrity cameos, Marshall goes for a grander, more polished sound with You Are Free, adding string arrangements and additional vocals to an almost Leonard Cohen-esque effect. It's classic Cat Power with bigger-budget studio kicks.

Will any of this come to life on stage when Cat Power rolls into town? With Chan Marshall, it's impossible to say. She is widely known for her unpredictable stage behavior, but despite the crying fits and anxiety-induced early endings, nobody's ever asked for their money back.

There's just something about her, especially when she fumbles and apologizes too profusely. Her voice is cathartic, even if that catharsis sometimes comes outside on the smoking patio. Too unbearable to watch, yet wanting to stay close.