New York Knitting Factory

Suddenly, it's quiet enough to hear a beer bottle drop. And, predictably, you do...

It’s one minute before Chan Marshall, aka Catpower, takes the stage at New York‘s intimate Knitting Factory, and noise is everywhere.

People shout conversations at their friends, peals of laughter rise up out of nowhere, cell phones jingle, bartenders clink glass mugs together. Then Marshall tip-toes onstage, straps on her guitar, eyes the audience through a curtain of hair, and whispers the first lines of ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ into a microphone. Suddenly it’s quiet enough to hear a beer bottle drop.

And, predictably, you do. But even that can’t break Marshall‘s spell on the crowd. A few minutes later, after she’s finished her lilting, chorus-free inversion of the Stones classic, everyone erupts – partly because they’re ecstatic, and partly because they held their breath through the whole thing. On stage, Marshall can create more tension with a single note than most bands can with eight fuzz pedals and a stack of amps.

Marshall‘s shyness is both well-documented and palpable. Tonight she’s alone onstage, armed only with a guitar and a piano, and she doesn’t make eye contact or start cracking jokes until the end of the set. And while her own music certainly has its fill of darkness and light, tonight she focuses on finding the souls of other people’s songs, as she does on her new album, ‘The Covers Record’.

Luckily, her interpretations are sung and played so uniquely that you couldn’t mistake them for being by anyone but her. Marshall‘s voice, for one, is consistently amazing; it’s soft and scratchy like a handful of just-picked cotton, and she knows precisely when to make it swoop up and slice through you. And her reworkings of familiar songs (‘Satisfaction’, Dylan‘s ‘Paths of Victory’) turn them inside-out, discovering countermelodies, emphasising different lyrics, and generally increasing their emotional heft by a multiple of three or four.

It’s the less familiar material, though, that proves most fascinating. Her version of ‘The Devil’s Daughter’ by folk singer Michael Hurley cuts right to its spooky heart. And for her grand finale, she suddenly beams at the audience and vamps her way through the traditional ‘Salty Dog’, giving an extra-suggestive growl to the “candyman” lyric. It’s a refreshingly carefree end to a intense show, letting everyone relax just a little bit before streaming outside into the night.