It was like a searing fever dream. That's the best way I can describe how Cat Power turned her performance at I/O last December 20 into sheer chaos. A large contingent of followers sat down in the middle of the floor, eager to hear every word, while everyone else milled around awkwardly on the edges and clumsily knocked over drink glasses. Drunkards heckled her from the sidelines. Couples made out so loudly that you could hear the low hum of sex emanating from them. But most just talked, noisily trying to comfort themselves in the face of the New York singer-songwriter's frequently bizarre behavior.
Up on stage, Cat Power began by tuning her guitar, launched into the first eight chords of a song, and then abruptly stopped to tune her guitar again. This lasted for around fifteen minutes. Then she got up, walked over to the piano, and did the same thing. By now the audience was freaking out, unsure of what to make of her, so she broke down and cried. After a few moments, she went into the same aforementioned routine. It looked like a cross between performance art and stage fright delivered with the hurried grace of a speed freak. Somewhere during her hour and a half show, though, she managed to pull off several songs from her last three albums, the most recent of which is 2003's You Are Free, along with impromptu covers like José Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad." It was those moments of clarity in which she sang with a husky cry as heart-shattering as a cooing night owl that keeps the whole episode reverberating in my mind.
Two weeks later, as I sit down to write my requisite year-end essay, I can't stop thinking about Cat Power. Perhaps it's because few of the shows I witnessed this year qualified as truly unpredictable performances rather than well-rehearsed recitals. Then again, there's a lot of mental refuse I have to sort through, a heap of memories both good and bad that must reach as high as the unsorted piles of CDs scattered across my work desk. I remember how great local soul diva Antonia Jenae's voice sounded on a summer night at Tobacco Road; the way North Carolina's Little Brother commanded the stage during a concert at I/O; sweating to the Spam Allstars' glorious jams at Hoy Como Ayer ...
But back to the Cat Power concert. In a Catch It Live preview ("Dark Power," December 18) I advised readers to be patient with her, "no matter how dark the path grows," since I had already read several articles detailing the same behavior she would exhibit that night. But as I walked to the bathroom during the show I found most of the crowd had abandoned the main room in favor of the lobby and the outside patio, hiding from her. These were people whose aggravated faces were marked by confusion and annoyance. They just wanted to party. They wanted to get their hard-earned money's worth. It's as if they were saying: I'm sorry. I can't deal with this right now. Fuck this art-rock shit. Why won't she finish so the DJ can come on? I just want to hear Outkast's "Hey Ya!" I love that song.
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To be fair, though, Cat Power's eccentricities can be alienating to both her followers and nonfans unwilling to grant her carte blanche to indulge herself. It leads back to the question: What did the audience think it was getting when it bought a ticket to see Cat Power -- a studied concert of numbers from her repertoire, or the mere opportunity to spend time with her, no matter what she eventually did?
I readily admit that I'm no expert on concert etiquette. Last year I literally received hundreds of invitations to attend shows from rock bands all over Miami-Dade County, the rest of Florida, other parts of the South, New York, and California, but only accepted a handful of them. Meanwhile I spent my weekends nightclubbing, traversing the main floor of the Soho Lounge, wandering around the cavernous crobar building, and even venturing into the hulking Space 34 warehouse. There were plenty of great musical moments culled from these adventures -- dancing, transfixed, as Oscar G blended together dark percussive electronics at Space 34; geeking out to DHM's house mixes at the Room above Maze; bouncing up and down in spontaneous joy as DJ LS1 cut up Lil Jon's "Get Low" into a screeching wall of post-P.E. noise at the Bermuda Bar. But the effect was strangely impersonal. The DJ sought to stay invisible in spite of his own rapturous programming of those records. My pleasure didn't come from watching the DJ, but from interacting with the people around me and my response to the records the DJ spun.
Miami is called the Magic City because, hell, magical things tend to happen. One minute you're chilling at the bar, the next minute you're talking to O.J. Simpson (or worse yet, Paris Hilton). One moment you're dancing, lost in your own head space; the next moment you're suddenly making out with a beautiful woman. Magic can also serve as an illusion, leading those who fall under its spell into a wayward, delusional state. This, unfortunately, describes the nature of Miami's music scene, which often seems like just a party scene geared to help us drink more, do more drugs, have more sex. We often think: Fuck, man, we don't want some earnest musician impressing his personality on us, trying to sing us songs about his or her life. We want to hear music that will inspire us, and then shift to the background as we act out our own desires. We do not want to fall under the power of anyone else's performance except our own.
Maybe that's the problem. Music isn't just something to make love to, but a culture to be appreciated on its own terms, a sound to be absorbed for the sheer love of hearing it, a way for artists to communicate aurally and physically with their listeners. And if this city's rockers, DJs, MCs, Latin rockeros, salsa congueros, jazz boppers, classical players, and anyone else who considers themselves a straight-up musician feels that Miami has forsaken them in favor of the next big, trendy party, then I am truly sorry. I was lost and now I want to be found. But you will have to be patient with me.