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Rethinking rock performance – in praise of Puss N Boots

A rock band with an apparent difference, singing to a different tune – three women with a signature style

From Potter to Popper

Puss N Boots is the slightly clumsy collective moniker for three outstanding female American musicians – Sasha Dobson, Norah Jones and Catherine Popper.

I came across them as an indirect result of discovering a remarkable country-rock(ish) band out of my dear Vermont by the name of Grace Potter & the Nocturnals. GPN is/was led by the eponymous Grace Potter, whose eye-catching energy and exuberance seem to have captivated rock cognoscenti over recent years, and were a revelation for me.

But over to the right-hand side of the stage was a much rarer and – to my instantly starstruck eyes – more intriguing sight. A tall, willowy, dark-haired bass player who (as I discovered) goes by the name Catherine Popper. Quick research revealed that she is apparently a highly respected force in the world of electric bass, the go-to-gal for conscientious, professional capability not hindered by ego-trip posturing. With a remarkable dearth of movement, flamboyancy or showmanship, she sways with gorgeously restrained elegance, carefully keeping an eye on what the others are doing and keeping the whole ensemble together with her subtle, finger-dancing bass lines. In the interest of full declaration and journalistic integrity, I feel compelled to declare that I just happen to think Cat Popper is without equivocation or reservation the most enthralling, beguiling woman on the planet – with absolutely no objectification or disrespect involved. There, I’ve written it. The PC police will soon be pounding on my door.

Rethinking how rock gets reeled off

Just about the time I discovered the existence of Ms Popper, however, she left Grace Potter & the Nocturnals and became (inter alia) part of a new three-woman constellation that eventually adopted the name Puss N Boots.

Catherine Popper, Norah Jones and Sasha Dobson (left to right)

Catherine Popper, Norah Jones and Sasha Dobson (left to right)

YouTube is a wonderful way to discover and explore new artists, and the introduction to Puss N Boots turned out to be an unadulterated delight. My potted version of their story is that Dobson, Jones and Popper are all major musical mojo-bearers in their own right. In mainstream music circles the genre-fluid Norah Jones is perhaps the best-known, with her 2002 first solo album selling 26 million copies. She’s already notched up nine Grammy awards and Billboard  named her top jazz artist of the 2000–2009 decade. 

But the three esteemed ladies got together in the desire to do something different, and to try exploring doing stuff in a people-size format that they enjoyed. Their apparent willingness to rethink the rock performance format is really why I noticed them. When I first came to Denmark in the early 1980s the Danish music scene was very left-wing and political – very different from anything this blushing Brit had ever encountered. Two of the gobsmackingly inspiring things I encountered (Fronthuset in Aarhus – anyone remember?) were men and women playing together with equal skill in the same rock bands in the struggle against sexism, and people blithely swapping instruments and stage positions in the resolute multi-layered struggle against elitism and idol worship. There were also all-female and feminist bands of ferocious capability – a phenomenon that has apparently influenced my music taste ever since.

Re-agenderising stage performance

Thirty-plus years later and a continent away, Puss N Boots seemed to be re-agenda-ising (re-agenderising?) the art of the rock concert/performance in a similar – though markedly less ideological – manner. They, too, are apparently exploring a conscious decision to not do what’s easiest or what they’re most used to, playing instruments they’re less familiar with and taking on roles different from what they’re used to. They seem to play smaller venues, they talk to the audience and josh with each other, the stage isn’t cluttered with huge banks of speakers and big noise, there’s less macho-style rock posing and everything seems generally friendlier, looser and more down to earth.

It’s a sheer delight to see their apparent enjoyment, to clock their expressions and laughter over missed chords and on-stage snafus, and that they are playing together – with its own dimension of pleasure – rather than just putting on a stage-down performance by the numbers. After multiple disappointments with big-arena live rock,  Puss N Boots has rekindled my waning faith in rock capabilities.

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