ATLANTA -- Alone on the Variety Playhouse stage here Friday night, seated in
his wheelchair, Vic Chesnutt -- the mercurial, Athens, Ga.-based singer/songwriter --
looked out at the audience from behind a guitar that was nearly as big as he was.
"Talk amongst yourselves," he told them, breaking their silence. "This is going to take me
a few minutes."
The audience did as he asked, and he took the time to tune his guitar. Once satisfied, he
began to slide into "Betty Lonely," a delicate yet wailing song from his 1995 album, Is
the Actor Happy? But he forgot the words and the guitar chords.
He stopped, apologized, looked at the ceiling and tried again. Still no luck. After a few
more false starts, he did finally get on track, delivering a quiet, poignant version of the
Chesnutt's loose demeanor seemed to fix the mood for the show that was to follow. He
was joined for the rest of the set by the odd, 11-piece, Nashville, Tenn., country-soul
collective, Lambchop. They also back Chesnutt on his most recent album, The
Salesman and Bernadette, and the show often seemed more like a back-porch
hootenanny than a proper concert.
Trading jokes with each other between songs and throwing back beers the whole way,
the singer and the band focused exclusively on the new album, running through nearly
every song on it.
Chesnutt, 33, is a paraplegic who was injured in a car accident when he was 18. Some
of his material is dark-hued and harrowing, but he has a wry side, too.
"For all you youngsters out there, this is how it is when you're a professional musician,"
Chesnutt joked as Lambchop took their time getting their gear on. "Just like Kiss," he
Once ready, the ensemble meandered into "Maiden," a quirky, folk-pop tune that's typical
of the offerings from The Salesman and Bernadette. Lambchop played subtly and
easily behind Chesnutt, stirring up a quiet hum rather than the kind of clatter that you'd
expect from an 11-piece band. The relaxed mood carried into "Duty Free," as the band
adroitly worked through the drifting tune.
"They just look like a bunch of guys hanging out," Eric Adjani, a 36-year-old real estate
agent from Douglasville, Ga., observed between songs. "I think a few of the guys in the
back might be watching TV."
But the band's loose, shambling vibe got tighter when it had to. The rollicking,
soul-tinged, "Until The Led" (RealAudio excerpt),
which featured blasts of trumpet and saxophone, got more than a few heads bobbing in
the laid-back crowd.
The set gained momentum as Chesnutt howled through "Parade" and
href="http://media.addict.com/atn-bin/get- music/Chesnutt,_Vic/Woodrow_Wilson.ram">"Woodrow Wilson"
excerpt), standout tracks from The Salesman and Bernadette. For most of the
crowd though, the highlight of the evening seemed to come near the end when Chesnutt
gave himself over to "Square Room," the most intimate song on the new album.
"Square Room" opened softly, but the crackle and buzz of the amplifiers and monitors
nearly drowned out Chesnutt's soft strumming and fragile voice. Slowly, the buzzing
white noise mounted toward a climax and eventually exploded with a disgusted
Chesnutt hollering, "Why do I insist on drinking myself to the grave?/ Why do I dream
about the cozy coffin?"
"I didn't think he'd play that song," Lauren Gallacher, a 22-year-old student from Biloxi,
Miss., said of "Square Room." "It's the most intense thing I've ever heard him play."
"It's a pretty heavy number," Chesnutt admitted in an interview prior to the show, talking
about "Square Room," which he wrote several years ago. "I always loved that song a lot
but could never come around to recording it for some reason. I just thought, with
Lambchop, I could hide behind them a little bit. [But] it was pretty scary."
Lambchop opened the show with a set that was very much in line with Chesnutt's. Lead
singer Kurt Wagner delivered a James Agee poem to start, while the rest of the band
soundchecked. It soon tumbled into "Petrified Florist," a gentle, murky tune off the 1998
EP Your Sucking Funny Day.
From here, Lambchop alternated between their unique, shuffling, countrified folk tunes
and the sort of soul-drenched stompers that can be found on their recent album, What
Another Man Spills.
While the audience was less familiar with Lambchop than they were with native son
Chesnutt, most in attendance appreciated the pairing.
"They just made him sound better," Burt Gilles, a 41-year-old schoolteacher from Liliburn,
Ga., said of Lambchop's influence on Chesnutt. "He finally may have found some folks
as crazy as he is."