Vic Chesnutt Boils Down His Sound Onstage

Singer/songwriter opens two-night stand with intimate renditions of older, latest material.

CHICAGO -- If every Vic Chesnutt melody and lyric could be dumped into one pot and boiled down to their collective essence, it might well be this: Savor the simple pleasures.

That's just what the Athens, Ga., singer/songwriter did Friday night at

the 400-capacity Schubas Tavern here. Performing solo before a packed

house on the first night of a two-night stand, Chesnutt revelled in his subtle, emotional songs.

Chesnutt offered fans a ramshackle, 16-song, 90-minute set. Alternating between scratchy electric guitar and piano, Chesnutt showcased material from his 1998 album, The Salesman and Bernadette, while also taking a stroll through his back catalog.

It was somewhat of an accident that Chesnutt appeared alone. He had hoped that Lambchop, the Nashville-based modern-country orchestra that provided his latest CD's elegant backing, would open the show and later join him. But the logistical challenge of bringing all 14 Lambchop members together proved too great.

In the end, Chesnutt settled for just one Lambchopper: Deanna Varagona, Lambchop horn player and Chicago local, whose three-piece combo opened the show.

"I'm heartbroken," Chesnutt said before the show. "I miss Lambchop badly. So there's a kind of blanket of sadness over the new songs -- but I think that helps them."

Chesnutt didn't perform any of his new material until the seventh song. Until then, he had played songs from each of his previous albums, including "Little Vacation," "Soft Picasso," "Onion Soup," "Gluefoot" and "Panic Pure."

Once he dove into his new material, the wheelchair-bound singer/songwriter

turned up the distortion on his electric guitar and ripped into the wry

"Duty Free" (RealAudio excerpt) and "Maiden."

"I wrote 'em all myself," Chesnutt said, "so [playing them solo] is no different. It's just more intimate."

Whether he was plucking strings or plunking keys -- as he did on "Guilty by Association" (a song about the vagaries of friendship with his Athens pal and early producer, R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe) and "Florida" -- Chesnutt chewed the older songs down to their red, raw nubs.

The result was undiluted tunes, as in the case of "Florida" from his

1992 album, West of Rome. It began with a salvo of one-liners ("Florida,

Florida, the Redneck Riviera") that had the crowd laughing.

But what seemed only rib-tickling was really a knife in the spleen: "I respect a man who goes to where he wants to be," Chesnutt said, "even if he wants to be dead." Yes, Chesnutt is amused by the macabre. But that's only one of the quirks of what, in "Panic Pure," he terms his "jigsaw disposition."

By turns, he is the jester and the tragic figure, the contrarian and the crowd-pleaser.

The latter was obvious in the way he dealt with audience members who

repeatedly shouted requests. Since he didn't have a setlist prepared, he encouraged their input -- at times actually seeking consensus before beginning a tune.

As the audience requested, Chesnutt closed the set with "New Town" (RealAudio excerpt) from his 1996 release, About to Choke. The rendition was radically different from the album version, and not just because Chesnutt played it on piano rather than guitar.

By slowing the song down from a bouncy pop tune to a mournful dirge, Chesnutt portrayed this "New Town" as not a place of beginnings and hope, but as a locale as doomed and degenerate as his "Florida."

Even so, it was another simple pleasure to be savored.