It’s 6 p.m. on a Friday at the Bonnaroo stage known as That Tent. I spent an hour sitting in the welcome shade of a broken-down misting tent waiting for my chance, now here I am, shifting my weight against a barricade four feet from the stage watching the Memphis Rhythm Band assemble to back one Charlyn “Chan” Marshall, the 34-year-old music mystery better known as Cat Power.
Marshall is a Southern-born girl who’s been carrying on a schizophrenic love affair with the music industry since her first independent release, Dear Sir in 1995, showcased her sandpaper smoothed voice and impossible knack for infusing the simplest phrases with the pain of the world.
The Memphis Rhythm Band, a 13-piece traveling ensemble including a string section, horns, two back up singers, and a few viable rhythm and blues legends, eases everyone into the set with a seven-minute rendition of something vaguely reminiscent of a Cat Power song.
It felt like middle-aged elevator music, and Chan Marshall was no where to be seen. The crowd shifted their feet and managed polite applause.
Marshall’s new album, a swanky, smoky piece called The Greatest, released in January, features these same legends. A second song, the album’s title track, starts and Chan prances onto the stage, jittery and lithe as a colt.
She has a track record a mile long of half-sung sets and sophist moments that occur mid-song. There are only two or three of these moments tonight, and they are brief enough to be charming.
“A lot of people come to these shows just to see if she’ll freak out, ya know,” my neighbor, who drove all the way from Louisiana and bought a $200 ticket just to see Cat Power, confides, eyeing the crowd distrustfully.
Braced by a tent full of sweaty fans and the smoothest set of Memphis blues session veterans imaginable, including Al Green guitarist Marbon “Teenie” Hodges and keyboardist Rick Steff, Marshall sails through this set with minimal interruption.
When she’s not wooing the crowd with her dusky voice that puts acts like Norah Jones, Joss Stone and Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval to shame, Chan is dancing like a little girl, pulling moves like the funky chicken and some improvised river dancing. She’s also giving props to her band, repeatedly applauding them.
Marshall isn’t the neurotic artist rambling off stage in a fit of nerves anymore. After resuming her previously canceled tour in support of The Greatest Chan’s in better shape than ever.
“Sober,” she announces, smiling to her crowd. “It isn’t so bad.”
We don’t think so either.