Cat Power’s Sydney Opera House concert is both an anniversary and a reunion. Moon Pix was released 20 years ago and Power (Chan Marshall) is here to play it with original collaborators Mick Turner (guitar) and Jim White (drums) of The Dirty Three.
Presumably in full, in order, as is customary for such anniversary gigs. Yet that is an awful lot of rules for a woman with a punk-rock penchant for binning the rulebook.
The Moon Pix recording trio played some fabled small-venue gigs in Australia in 1999, but none since. Add to this Marshall’s connection to our country – “I found joy I had never felt [in Australia]” – and you get a room of already ardent fans feeling very much like the chosen ones.
The thrill is laced with a little incredulity and a lot of pride that “our” Moon Pix is now officially atop the “very important album” plinth. Because if a string section-enhanced Opera House concert hall celebration doesn’t formalise its classic album status, what could?
Moon Pix is a perfect storm of the intensely idiosyncratic styles of Marshall, White and Turner. Its longevity is due to a purity at its source that has never dried up, and never will, bottled and corked for eternity by a part-time recording engineer at Sing Sing studio in the Melbourne suburb of Cremorne. Even now, all grown up, its songs radiate the frailty and will to survive of a baby giraffe’s first faltering steps.
Joining the original trio tonight is Belinda Woods, who played flute on He Turns Down in 1998, and three string players (Judith Hamann, Lizzy Welsh and Erkki Veltheim). They’re performing the arrangements of Berlin-based Australian Ned Collette who himself alternates between piano and guitar. Leaving Marshall to just sing.
A long minute ticks by, however, after she about-turns and walks offstage, having only just come out, leaving the band to marinate longer than the recipe called for in the looped sample that opens American Flag.
Though we share the experience of nostalgia only; the togetherness stops there. Even if we could turn to hear the “Moon Pix saved me” utterance of the stranger by our side, it would seem at worst confected and at best dreary, because memories only come in colour if they’re our own.
Marshall returns, sheet music in hand. The first four songs are overwhelming– as in remind-yourself-to-breathe kind of overwhelming. Turner and White play so empathically and their sound, via The Dirty Three but also hundreds of Moon Pix listens, has weathered into something utterly iconic. Playing together, it’s as if they’re in possession of a finely calibrated heat dial, which, although they play with more grace and nuance than fire, can be spun from cool to hot in a flash.
With just a music stand to shield her from view, Marshall clutches at the fabric of her black velvet dress. Her relationship with the microphone appears to be love, hate and all the complexities in between. She pulls back or sings into it sideways; holds her hands either side of her mouth – as if shouting – or just one hand up, as if whispering a secret.
When Say begins – my “Moon Pix saved me” song if you must know – White brings the weather, summoning the thunderstorm sample with muted drum rolls, and Turner plays its lullaby loop with requisite tenderness. Here, as in other songs, Collette leaves ample stark space in the arrangement, aware the mood would be bankrupted by lushness.
During Metal Heart she wanders off – physically and mentally. Her delivery is distracted and we remember it’s impossible for her to fake it. The cheap seats lead the charge in yelling nice things. “We love you Chan,” says a woman, mispronouncing her name.
It hurts when she skips lines from Colors And The Kids – hesitant to look its sadness dead in the eye? – and trails off forlornly with “you are such a funny bear” – but Marshall can’t merely perform her songs; she must crawl inside and sing from within to make them alive, and who here knows what that song’s skin feels like on hers? If some lines she wrote a lifetime ago don’t feel right, or if she has to press emergency eject earlier than the composition demands, well OK.
At this point in the Cat Power journey of fandom you know that swallowing, not wallowing in, your frustration that your “moment” has not precisely plunged the bullseye you circled out for it before you arrived will get you nowhere. You must move on, stay open and let yourself be cracked apart by other songs instead, which tonight are Say, No Sense, Moonshiner and Back Of Your Head.
She returns solo, a tea label pirouetting from a mug and, amid a lot of throat-clearing, plays Maybe Not and I Don’t Blame You, her shot-with-air voice as astonishing as ever. The band returns for The Dirty Three song Great Waves, Good Woman and The Greatest. Now she’s relaxed, mimicking an Australian accent and outsourcing band introductions to the crowd, chuffed to yell out each one.
“I am so honoured to have been invited to play with Jim White and Mick Turner again,” she says. “I don’t know how many of y’all knew me when I was crazy … I hope that you find the same blessings coming to you. It’s a moment to take notice that we are doing well. Keep trucking.”
Guardian version here.