Cat Power / Michael Hurley / Knitting Factory

May 11, 2000

Chan Marshall (a.k.a. Cat Power) may complain of stage fright and shyness, but she was up for the challenge at two sold-out Knitting Factory solos sets this Thursday evening. Showcasing the somber, mood-stricken The Covers Album, Marshall’s flickering moans and quivering paranoiac inflections may have been barely audible, but they never failed to provide compelling intimacy. While avid fans were instantly awestruck, her corpse-like dirges proved too one-dimensional for mere onlookers.

With brown hair covering her cute facial features for the entire performance, Marshall’s desperate, ghostly whispers hushed the audience. She paused only to ask the soundman to put the vocal monitor up and when she switched from acoustic guitar to piano, maintaining an impenetrable distance form the audience.

Marshall’s cryptic anguish was twice as sullen as Marianne Faithfull’s dour reflections on Broiken English and thrice as haunting as Margo Timmins’ stoic lyricizing on the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Sessions. A cadaverous version of Phil Phillips soul classic, “Sea Of Love,” drifted off into the night air like a silent retreat, as she purred the lyrics in a tortured, frail wisp.

It was only appropriate Tara Jane O’Neil (formerly of slo-core icons Rodan, Retsin, and Sonora Pine) would be lurking around in the balcony, since her lo-fi bedroom recording, Peregine, also has a weather-beaten atmospheric edginess.

It’s fair to say those unfamiliar with Marshall’s growing body of work may easily mistake her reclusive nature as narcissistic, but those who cherish her harrowing nightmarish indulgences find her mysteriously intriguing.

A grey-haired troubadour with an uncanny knack for scraggly traditional folk songs and Depression Era Dust Bowl ballads, Michael Hurley has been recording on and off since the ‘60s. Supported by an upright bassist and mandolinist, the vagabond-like neo-hippie provided roots-y Appalachian-based songs sung in a delicate, reflective baritone. While some of the younger audience members talked through Hurley’s soft-toned acoustic set and seemed indifferent to his laid-back eccentricities and carefree bohemian attitude, the elders patiently hung on every bizarre turn of phrase this idiosyncratic underground bard delivered.

He cooed through a spare version of “Woody Woodpecker” and used his mouth as a percussion instrument on a somber backwoods number. Long-time admirers sang along to the ridiculously shrill falsetto chorus of the drunken banjo parody, “Uncle Smoothface,” then were mesmerized by the dusky poignancy of Hurley’s live staple, “Sweet Lucy.”

Only Ry Cooder and John Prine preserve old timey American county folk with such neo-primitive authenticity. Fans should check out his recent Weatherhole LP.

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