Is the world ready for a kinder, gentler Vic Chesnutt? Judging by the rapt attention afforded the “new and improved” model Saturday night, the answer would seem to be a rousing “yes.”
Chesnutt, reliant on a wheelchair as the result of an early-’80s auto accident, has often come across as a sort of charmingly evil twin to Christopher Reeve. He’s waxed bitter, spiteful and snotty, but seldom about his own condition — his misanthropy has always been more cosmic than that.
But while the singer-guitarist’s earlier material — like the self-eviscerating “Stupid Preoccupations,” his opening number while seated alone on the Bowery Ballroom’s spacious stage — was almost obsessively personal, he’s changed his approach, as evidenced by his allegorical new release, “The Salesman and Bernadette.”
That break with the past was crystal clear at this gig, and not just because most of the material was drawn from “Salesman.” Most telling was his decision to forgo his usual stripped-down perf in favor of the big-band backing (13 pieces) of Nashville indie orchestra Lambchop.
For the most part, the marriage was a happy one. Augmented by horns, vibraphone and multiple layers of guitar, such slow, shuffling songs as “Mysterious Tunnel” and “Parade” were elevated from sullen to stately. The mere presence of a stageful of musicians buoyed Chesnutt.
At times, however, the wall of sound was a bit too dense. Chesnutt’s voice, a high, lonesome whine that wouldn’t sound out of place on a ’20s-vintage country-blues field recording, couldn’t cut through brassier, brighter songs such as “Duty Free.” On these, he sounded like an unwelcome guest at his own party.
Still, it was refreshing to see Chesnutt escape the black cloud that seemed destined to hover over his head, without dimming the intensity of his craft.
In a too-brief opening set, Lambchop displayed a combination of virtuosity and off-kilter charm, thanks, in large part, to the low-key loopiness of leader Kurt Wagner. Like a parallel-universe Jimmy Webb, with a mile-wide streak of cynicism, Wagner builds grand sonic structures that are every bit as smart as they are sentimental.