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Cat Power confident at cover-heavy

WWU concert

Chan Marshall’s tumultuous career, both on-stage and off, begs the question: Who will play the troubled-but-brilliant songstress in her feature-length biopic?

Johnny Cash had “Walk the Line” and Bob Dylan was immortalized in “I’m Not There” — why not Marshall?

The woman known as Cat Power has a life made for the silver screen. The daughter of a blues musician in the South, Marshall moved to New York, where her penchant for substance abuse intertwined itself with severe stage fright and depression, translating to erratic and unpredictable live performances that became an integral part of the Cat Power mystique.

Legend has it that an early Cat Power concert consisted of Marshall plucking a two-string guitar and singing “no, no, no” ad nauseum for 15 minutes. On-stage meltdowns and concerts cut short by Marshall leaving the stage were common.

Predictably, this led to accusations that Marshall was merely cultivating a “troubled artist” image for herself, but the insular, desolate beauty of Cat Power’s music spoke for itself. Marshall wears the most broken of hearts on her sleeve and dons the “sad bastard” indie-folk hat with the best of them. She’s essentially the female counterpart to Portland troubadour Elliott Smith.

But thankfully, Marshall’s career arc appears to have taken an upturn where Smith’s spiraled into suicide. After spending a week in rehab just before the release of 2006’s "The Greatest," Marshall has reportedly embraced sobriety, delved into Nashville-style blues roots and turned into a touring force, with a talented backing band providing the structure she was apparently missing in the early years.

Come on Hollywood, if that’s not a “misunderstood musician coping with stardom” movie, I don’t know what is. Cast Tom Hanks as the manager and you’ve got a hipster version of “That Thing You Do.”

Marshall and her Dirty Delta Blues Band paid Bellingham a visit Wednesday night at Western Washington University’s Performing Arts Center.

Marshall is no stranger to other people’s songs, having released not one but two albums consisting mostly of covers — "The Covers Record" in 2000 and "Jukebox" this year. Wednesday’s set borrowed heavily from the latter, full of bluesy, original takes on everything from Hank Williams to Frank Sinatra.

While it’s a bit frustrating to watch someone so adept at the nuts and bolts of songwriting do someone else’s song-and-dance, Cat Power’s covers never seem like covers, often with drastically different melodies and arrangements.

Marshall reimagined The Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” as a plaintive, paranoid acoustic guitar-and-vocals number on "The Covers Record," but ironically the group performed an energetic version along the lines of the original Wednesday night.

“Metal Heart,” a standout from 1998’s Moon Pix and re-released on Jukebox, was regretfully one of the only tracks from Marshall’s early years. But the band did a great job complimenting the song’s brooding desolation, and the culmination of the refrain of “Metal heart, you’re not hiding/ Metal heart, you’re not worth a thing” showcased Marshall’s talent for channeling the down-and-out person in all of us.

The opening piano chords of “Lived in Bars” from "The Greatest" garnered the most response from the crowd. The band performed the hit flawlessly, with Marshall’s smokey tenor alternating between a sultry whisper and a raspy upper register.

With a history like Cat Power’s, the chance of witnessing an on-stage meltdown was certainly in the back of many peoples’ minds. Marshall asked that a spotlight be turned off, leaving the band as silhouettes from the crowd’s perspective for much of the set, but otherwise held it together.

Marshall had a unique stage presence, contorting her body and moving her hips to the beat of her own drum while leaning into the microphone in her hand. But for someone with a frequent inability to deal with crowds, Marshall seemed relatively confident — someone who for the first time feels self-assured in her own skin, despite a truck load of idiosyncrasies.

That confidence seems to be manifesting itself across Marshall’s life, with reports that she will be a “celebrity spokesperson” for Chanel fashion. I'm not sure how that’s any better for the psyche than the bottle, Chan, but whatever works for you.

Not to mention that Marshall is making forays into acting, including a small part as Jude Law’s ex-girlfriend in last year’s "My Blueberry Nights."

Forget worrying about the lead part in "The Cat Power Story" — maybe Chan can play herself.

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