Cat Power / Zsela Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver BC, October 28

Cat Power / Zsela Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver BC, October 28
Photo by Greg Hunt
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There is no presence like Chan Marshall. After more than two decades under the name Cat Power, she has locked into a live performance that is wholly captivating, as Monday night's audience at the Commodore Ballroom experienced first hand.

Mononymous New York singer Zsela opened the night with songs that began a cappella or with reverent drones. They rarely swelled beyond downbeat electro-pop. "Your silence is growing old," she sang. Ironically, the Commodore audience continued their streak of being the worst crowd during openers. They chattered everywhere except the front of the stage, yet someone dared to yell, "Louder." But Zsela's alluring music is best served at lower volumes; it's most rewarding when one has to lean in to pick up its nuances.

One doesn't need to lean into Cat Power's music, though. It surrounds the spectator. But before she could sing her first note, one of her many adoring fans presented her with flowers. She put them down in a permanent patch of light near the right side of the stage where they remained the rest of the evening.

This unplanned piece of set-dressing ended up adding to the mood. With a black Victorian-style dress on and her brunette bangs obscuring her face, Marshall spent most of her performance shrouded in shadows, silhouetted by lights that alternated from song to song, mostly between crimson red, pale blue, and fragrant lilac. The scene was gothic, a perfect complement for her haunting yet elegant songs.

In this darkness, Marshall floated back and forth across the stage like a spectre. Her physical movements mimicked the gradual drift of songs like "Me Voy." She seemed to have manipulated time as she and her three-piece backing band — a drummer, guitarist/bassist, and keyboardist — stretched out the music and words of songs including "Good Woman" and "The Greatest" so that they unfurled in slow motion.

"Nude as the News" underwent the most drastic transformation. Drawn out and given space to breath, it was unrecognizable from its angry, torched original form. All night, Cat Power's band played with utmost restraint, so when they picked up their intensity, the tension became palpable; "Nude as the News," the most vigorous song of the night, could have split a mountain.

Without a break, they moved from "Nude" to the electric pulse of her catchiest, most glistening pop song (which is still tinged with melancholy), "Manhattan." The drumming was crisp, controlled, and inventive with loads of fills. "Hoo-hoo! Oooooh! Woo!" Marshall whooped into dual mics in a state of freewheeling ecstatic peace.

Watching Chan Marshall was like watching a pantomime: her singed, smokey voice hung the air like ash that emanated out of nowhere, disembodied from the actor onstage.

Marshall left the audience without an encore, but she left with a much more personal touch. She divided her flowers and handed a bundle to one fan at each side of the stage and signed records. Her gratitude was clear as she smiled and thanked her fans. Theirs was clear as they rushed to the front, reached their arms out to her, and lingered in hope of an encore, until stage techs struck her set.