Cat Power

Speaking for Trees CD/DVD

(Matador; 2004)

By Sean Ford | 27 October 2004

The first and only time I attempted to see Chan Marshall in concert was a certified disaster. It was an icy February night in 2002, and she was supposed to play at the Knitting Factory in New York City. The small space was sick with hipsters smoking and gabbing and waiting for Chan. Slowly, everyone started to realize that the opening act had left the stage quite a while ago and there was still no sign of her. People started to get more and more anxious, smoking more and talking louder. The tiny space got incredibly hot as everyone had come in winter coats and had nowhere to put them.

When Chan finally appeared a good hour and a half after her scheduled stage time and began to timidly tune her guitar, I braced for a short set. Once she began, she was starting songs and stopping, switching lyrics, sighing into the mic, mumbling to the sound guy (the Knit has the worst sound guy ever, by the way), then eventually sitting on the stage where she couldn’t be seen past the first row of people (I was mushed into a wall in the back), singing lowly without a mic in a very talkative room. Unable to hear or see anything but similarly distraught fans, I left after five or six songs.

My friends have tried to convince me to give a Cat Power show another go, but I haven’t been able to summon the courage. See, Chan Marshall’s live performances have always been as heart wrenching to watch as her beautiful songs are to hear. There’s always been a weird disconnect between the legends of Chan partying late into the night with Kim Gordon and mingling with the fashion elite and the Chan who shows up at Cat Power concerts, seemingly uncomfortable with the idea that people have come to see her. She does the elusive/combative passive/aggressive performance thing quite a bit, and while rumor has it she is able to play a strong set, she is far more likely to stop in the middle of a song, turn around and spend long periods in silence. Really, I can’t blame her. Her songs often bare a tortured soul and it must be painful to summon that energy night after night. After lots of Melrose Place-style soul-searching on my part, I resigned myself to go through life never having seen a good Cat Power performance.

In a move that at once acknowledges and makes reparations for her mercurial performances, Speaking For Trees is first and foremost a nearly two-hour film of Chan singing and playing electric guitar in the same woods that grace the album art of You Are Free (2003). The movie can either be viewed as an extremely generous gesture by one of the music world’s most reticent performers, or in light of the format of the movie (Chan standing in the middle ground, at times turning away or stopping to fix her hair) an exact recreation of her in concert persona. I could see an argument for the latter, but rather than an exact re-creation, the video plays as more of an ideal concert.

Chan stands about fifteen feet away from the camera, and her only movements are the subdued fidgets anyone who has seen her live has seen magnified on stage many, many times. The atmosphere is reminiscent of a Warhol-style single shot art-film (think Empire: The Concert!). The steady shot of the clearing is also eerily reminiscent of the scene in The Ring (2002) where Samara crawls out of the well to kill you (if The Ring bothers you as much as it bothers me, don’t watch this DVD alone at night, trust me (and yes, I’ve seen Ringu, but I like the remake better).

The movie is shot on video, and while the quality is decent, I wish this had been shot on film. Though, since the video makes it hard to make out Chan’s facial features through the pixels, I’d have to guess the choice of video was also very intentional. As I’ve said, this is clearly a generous release, but it still contains Cat Power’s trademarked standoffishness in spades. She’ll only let you so close. The video quality has other drawbacks, as clouds move overhead and the sun flares in and out of the screen, the colors will wash momentarily every now and then. The audio quality is thankfully quite good, though neither a Dolby 5.1 mix nor even a stereo mix, it’s basically a near-perfect bootleg of the best Cat Power concert you will never see.

Chan is in her element in these upstate New York woods and the songs she plays, her newer You Are Free material along with a slew of previously unreleased covers is equally suited to the serene outdoor setting. Her voice sounds fantastically immediate and alive, even with the above-noted technological limitations.

Covers wind their way in and out of Chan’s set; in fact there are nine covers in all amongst the eighteen songs---though most of the songs are repeated once or more, in different versions. Dylan’s “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” is revisited three times, for instance; a superb version of M. Ward’s “Sad, Sad Song” makes for an excellent centerpiece to the set; a nice version of “Blue Moon” (sans chorus a la “Satisfaction” from the Covers Record); and a couple Alex Chilton songs (“Nighttime” runs into Chan’s “Back of Your Head”) make various appearances. When you hear two different takes of “Back of Your Head,” you realize that as much as the lyrics work, it really is her voice that sets up everything.

Most of the other songs are Marshall’s, from You Are Free, such as a particularly focused take on “Evolution” and a wonderful take of “I Don’t Blame You.” The video definitely seems like a bookend to that album. In one sense, the set functions as a view into Marshall’s thought process as she works her way through the songs. In another sense, this is, as I’ve said, probably as close to an ideal Cat Power concert as you are ever going to get. You Are Free functioned as a sort of maturation for Marshall, reconciling her early punk leanings, her development as a song-writer, her indebtedness to the classics, her stage antics and her one in a million voice into a wonderful portrait of a rusty, declining American. Speaking For Trees goes further to complete this portrait, documenting a perfectly imperfect concert by a perfectly imperfect performer. This is Cat Power---in her element, free of the expectations of a crowded room and expectant faces---on her own terms.

Also included in the package (I said it was generous, right?) is a square-bound booklet featuring grainy, arty photo-copied black and white child-like drawings and photos from the video. There’s also an additional audio disc. That disc contains the eighteen minute “Willie Deadwilder,” apparently an outtake from the You Are Free sessions. It’s a fantastic, strangely sunny, simple love song plucked on acoustic guitar. Needless to say, you can get lost in many times in the course of eighteen minutes, and while it’s not worth the entire price of admission, it is at least worth half.

Speaking For Trees may be the best way to experience a Cat Power performance at this point, and that’s probably just the way Chan Marshall wants it.