Cat Power played Paradise Rock Club – 10/5

Cat Power performs at Forest Hills Stadium in Queens, 9/30

Cat Power – singer/songwriter Chan Marshall and her current three-piece band – headlined a sold-out Paradise on Friday night in support of Marshall’s first LP in six years, with support from the enigmatic Willis Earl Beal. 

“Please don’t clap.”

“You gotta be ready to fuckin’ die”

“Tired of these motherfuckin’ songs”

“Love yourself just enough to not talk in the mirror”

“I’m acting!”

“I asked you not to clap.”

Willis Earl Beal is a quotable guy – and he’s got timing. His opening set on Friday night, featuring Beal, a laptop, a microphone and a dim blue backlight, could be recapped entirely in these between– (or mid–) song asides. It would undercut the startling beauty of Beal’s ambient soul compositions, but that’s probably how he’d like it.

Following a brief flirtation with indie hype-cycle fame circa a 2012-2013 signing with XL, Beal largely retreated from the spotlight, as a Noisey deep-dive detailed earlier this year. A connection with erstwhile tourmate and collaborator Cat Power evidently endured from Beal’s days on the Pitchfork circuit, however, and here he was on the Paradise stage, beginning his set with the unceremonious plugging-in of an aux cord.

Beal was quick to downplay his time on stage. “I’m not too talented,” he offered at one point – a patent untruth from a purveyor of arresting outsider artistry who was keeping an unfamiliar room enthralled with a one-man show. Clad in a cowboy hat, he stalked the stage, balanced dramatically atop a stool and sang in heartrending voice. Then, after 40 strange, stirring minutes, Beal retreated back to the shadows, reminding us he was here a guest.

“I’m just a fan.”

In the interim between sets, Nick Cave’s eerie and mournful Skeleton Tree drifted over the PA, allowing Cave to serenade Chan Marshall’s entrance with lyrics about the inability of gods and dreams to outlive us. It was a fitting introduction; two of a generation’s great songwriters united, however artificially. Just a few songs later, Marshall would deconstruct one of Cave’s masterworks, “Into My Arms,” in the first of the evening’s many half-covers, medleys and rearrangements. Marshall may be touring a record – Wanderer saw its proper release the day of the show – but her set felt more like an untethered exploration of some internal songbook than a rote promotion of new material. Not that we should’ve expected any different. Ordinary has rarely been Marshall’s M.O.

Some selections the band played straight, like the haunting, minimalist takes on “He Turns Down” and “The Moon” that bookended the set. Elsewhere, songs faded elliptically into one another, a verse of Jackson Browne serving as an intro to “Song for Bobby” or Marshall’s own “Cross Bones Style” merging unexpectedly with her contemporaneous “Nude as the News.” That turn-on-a-dime nature gave the evening a sense of unpredictable momentum that satisfied nearly as much as performances themselves.

That said, the pure craft of the set surely shouldn’t be understated. Marshall stuck to vocals throughout the night, allowing her the freedom to twirl behind the mic stands between verses and wield burning incense like a cigarette, and her singularly moving voice sounded as elegiac and heartbreaking as it ever has. The band’s arrangements largely adhered to the folk-blues styling of Wanderer, understated and tasteful. Only a handful of songs opened up to crescendos, in an effective deploying of volume as punctuation.

Marshall said little throughout the set, but didn’t need the stage banter to connect with an adoring crowd. They were already hanging on her every gesture. The lack of an encore broke similarly from concert convention, but the engrossing set hardly required one. There were no hits saved for the finale here – instead, a show played wholly on the artists’ own particular terms. Just a quick goodbye, and a “see you in a couple months.” I sure hope so.