Expecting the unexpected has long been a part of the special experience of catching a Cat Power performance, as we were reminded at her return to the Lobero Theatre September 9. As the underscoring subtext to that attitude, it often seems like Cat Power herself shows up with an appetite for the unexpected.
Did she actually plan to spin off in cryptic eddies of improvisational dervish passages in certain songs? Had she carefully plotted the disarming deconstruction of the Sinatra classic “I’ll be Seeing You,” while crouching by the monitor and rumbling in a devilish Elvis impersonation?
We’ll never know, as this wholly unique singer-songwriter-mystic works in mysterious and mostly entrancing ways. Cat Power— AKA Chan Marshall — is 50 and has transcended her old quirky young cult heroine status. With her deepened, dusky and wiser voice, Power owns her own mystique.
At the Lobero, her dutiful backing trio started the groove to “Say” before the singer, all in black, sidled onstage in a swarthy pool of dim-lit ambience, which continued for the duration of the set. We detected the disapproving smirk in her voice as she pointed out several empty seats in the front row, although the house was nearly full. Working two microphones (one with voice-altering effects) she moved restlessly, stealthily around the stage — like a sly cat with night vision.
Some of the setlist drew on her new and engaging album Covers, her third album of highly personalized and deconstructed cover tunes, from Frank Ocean’s “Bad Religion” to the Pogues’ “A Pair of Brown Eyes” to the “cover” of her old song “Hate,” redubbed “Unhate.” Her live version of the Jackson Browne jewel “These Days” flew more freely than the recorded version, which hovered closer to the legendary Nico version of old. Contextual wardrobe changed radically in her approach to “New York, New York” and “When the Saints Come Marching In,” heard here in grumpy dirge mode, while her own songbook yielded fragmented versions of “The Moon,” “Manhattan” and “The Greatest.”
As a finale (no encore here), her take on “Wild is the Wind” was one of the murkier tunes of the night, but it closed with a fitting send-off and personal mantra: “stay wild!”