Cat Power/Sean Na Na
In an event as close to performance art as The Bottleneck is ever likely to present, Chan Marshall, a.k.a Cat Power, burrowed into the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” Tuesday night, then paused at the chorus to move her microphone stand halfway across the stage. Because her hair covered her face for the duration of her brief set, it was impossible to determine whether the irony of demonstrating dissatisfaction during the classic song of sexual complaint registered with her.
Throughout a mix of songs from her simply titled recent album, Covers, and material from 1998 critical favorite Moon Pix, Marshall looked like Patti Smith standing sideways. Her dulcet, Sinead O’Connor-on-Valium voice emerged from under a mop of brown hair, conveying the crestfallen stretch of emotional territory between heartache and heartbreak. She interrupted more than half of the songs she offered the crowded Bottleneck with directions to the sound man and leery questions to the audience regarding the strength of her guitar and vocal presence. The latter were trick questions — it was hard to tell whether she wished the guitar mix would drown out her voice or vice versa. Even the few willing to shout out reassurances (“You sound like a million bucks,” hollered one man, to no avail) probably gave up in frustration as Marshall continually picked up and moved her microphone stand as if it were a divining rod for calculating the stage position that would pain her least.
Marshall is, by reputation, a cagey live act, and she didn’t disappoint. If she failed to melt down, she came off rankled and easily startled (mostly by our photographer, whom she banished before altering her already craven pose to prevent a suitable shot). She played the part of something being hunted on an alt-rock safari, which is too bad, because her pure, wounded voice and simply plinked and plunked songs are often fascinating. Marshall belongs in a reverent theater, not a noisy bar. She deserves an attentive audience, and her growing fanbase also deserves a more eager summary of her talents.
On the other hand, opening Minnesota duo Sean Na Na is not an act to be discussed in terms of who deserves what. Eponymous frontman Sean Tillman and slack-jawed keyboardist Lucky Jeremy leaned into a set of wimpy ballads like Tenacious D receiving estrogen therapy. Tillman, sporting an iron-on transfer of a unicorn on his jersey, looked like Elvis Costello about to lose a toughman competition. He sang in a high, grainy voice that would have been more endearing had his lyrics not also featured unicorns and bitter rails against alcoholic girlfriends. Some of the songs were built around solidly constructed hooks, but Sean Na Na had nada charisma and no memorable lyrics. The two acts in tandem were a blurred image of the most pompous and unfortunate currents in the river of indie acts who clearly hate touring but can’t otherwise carve a niche.