Cody Chesnutt played the Mercury Lounge Friday night in support of his new album, Landing On A Hundred (I reviewed the album here for Popmatters). Landing On A Hundred shows a new side to Chesnutt — once a profane, lo-fi artist with an interest in lots of musical genres, Chesnutt basically vanished from music for ten years and came back as a socially-conscious soul singer, channeling R&B and funk from the late 60s and early 70s. Chesnutt turns out to be a talented and charismatic performer. Assisted by a solid, casually proficient band, he controlled the small stage at the Mercury Lounge, delivering a short, strong set of about nine songs, all from the new album. The band kept their eyes on their leader for cues about tempo and volume; everyone else looked at him because its impossible not too. He cut an impressive figure in boots, pants that were half way between pajamas and dress pants, a tucked in t-shirt, a red cardigan, and the army helmet that he has been wearing in photo shoots lately. No matter how much dancing and full-throated singing he did, the helmet stayed on, roguishly cocked to cover one of his eyes.
Though Chesnutt is always seen toting a guitar, he only played his instrument on stage for one song. Mainly, he gyrated, cruised, and twisted. His falsetto was clean, strong, and vibrant. He easily won over the crowd, constantly serenading the front row, shaking hands with anyone he could reach, walking into the audience a couple times, and seamlessly replying to yells like “you’re awesome” without missing a beat in his singing. He used the audience as a rhythm section — snaps, claps — and as backing vocalists, sometimes even conducting as if we were his personal choir.
In one of the night’s best moments, he tapped the audience to provide the snapped beat for his song “What Kind Of Cool (Will We Think Of Next).” But the snapping was coming too quickly, so Chesnutt, with a huge grin on his face, crooned “Don’t rush it, ain’t nothing cool about rushing it,” and then, as things slowed to a speed he approved of, “Cool is about taking your time,” ad-libbing a sexy and amusing tune on the spot. But it was all innuendo, there was none of the raw sexuality of his youth. Sure, I wanted “The Seed,” but that’s from his past life. Now, he’s a talented soul-singer trying to figure out how to work the spark of his live performance into the seriousness of his latest recordings, which sacrifice some of his past unpredictability in fun in their search for social message.