Confined to a wheelchair after a traffic accident at age 18, sitting center stage, cradling his guitar “Sleepy” (an instrument with its own history), his voice scratchy and sleep-edged and just a little bit tetchy, Vic Chesnutt could be one of the Southern gothic characters that inhabit his songs. “I don’t need your sympathy applause,” he mock-growled to the adoring aud. “I’ll take it, but I don’t need it.”
Chesnutt played his recent New West release, “Silver Lake” in its entirety at the Troubadour. Recorded in the Los Angeles neighborhood that gives the album its name, “Silver Lake” — his first to receive wide release in more than five years — is possibly Chesnutt’s most focused collection.
Optimistic but dark humored, he’s tender and perverse in equal measure. “Band Camp” is a nostalgic reverie, the musical rebellion that sparks the narrator’s love belied by the tune’s martial rhythms; “Second Floor” builds from its stunning opening image of swans circling on the surface of a sewer pond; and “Girl’s Say’s” knowing gender politics show off his observational skills.
He’s replaced the album’s Hollywood alt-country pros with a trio of musicians from his hometown, Athens, Ga., and they serve the tunes brilliantly.
Their rangy, unhurried beats, un-manicured guitars and rich harmonies cloak the tunes in a Crazy-Horse-styled haze that also nods toward Bob Dylan and the Beatles. “Zippy Morocco” sheds the album’s north African elements and emerges as a gentle, Dylanesque tall tale. And “Sultan, So Mighty,” a story told from the point of view of a eunuch, is a sweetly Arabian waltz.
Chesnutt’s innate humanity ties the songs together. He’s a man who can find love in “reading a history book/sharing breakfast from one plate” and “holding hands over loved ones’ graves.” When, in the set’s ultimate song, the chorus asks “if it made any difference,” he can reply emphatically “yes, in my life, yes.”
Opener M. Ward’s solo set showed him to be a masterful guitarist in the tradition of John Fahey and Leo Kottke. While his own songs were impressive, the highlights of his set were covers: Bob Dylan’s “Buckets of Rain” and David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” turned into a craggy invitation at the crossroads.