Shy smiles and half-hearted toss-offs

Welcome to the world of Vic Chesnutt live.

Published July 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Sycophantic crowds make me nervous. They don't go to concerts for value or entertainment, but to worship at the feet of a personality. Now, granted, Athens, Ga., phenom Vic Chesnutt is a pretty decent personality. Beginning with "Little" in 1990 and continuing through "The Salesman and Bernadette" last year, the singer-songwriter has released a surprisingly consistent series of quietly haunting, sharply intelligent albums. He's also spent the last 15 or so years confined to a wheelchair after a car accident left him without use of his legs and only partial use of his hands, a condition that makes it almost impossible not to root for the guy, musical value be damned.

At the first night of a three-night Knitting Factory stand, Chesnutt was feeling the love. The crowd chortled at every arched eyebrow and every tossed-off witticism. Half-hearted throwaways were greeted with reverent applause. At one point, someone even clapped when Chesnutt belched. The singer fawned in return: More than half of his set was made up of earnest audience requests.

But while unquestionably touching and often starkly intimate, the show wasn't stellar. Chesnutt played the majority of songs alone on a pale-blue electric Fender. And without the benefit of Lambchop -- the delightful Nashville, Tenn., band that backed him on "Salesman" -- the magisterial sweep of songs like "Replenished" was lost, as Chesnutt stopped in the middle of pieces or abruptly ended them with a quip and a shy smile. That made a four numbers played on acoustic guitar and piano at the end of the show the most warmly intimate and quietly affecting part of the entire show. Forced to tone down his singing to accompany his delicate piano, the songs -- "Sewing Machine," a song originally recorded by Brute, a Chesnutt-Widespread Panic project, and "Myrtle," from "About to Choke" -- beautifully conveyed the stark incisiveness apparent on his albums and mostly missing from the rest of the set.

Toward the end of the show, a cell phone in the audience rang. "They want to sign me," Chesnutt quipped. "And they want to know if I can lose the wheelchair." When another phone rang again a minute later, he continued, "He'll lose the wheelchair. And he agrees to get breast implants!" Not surprisingly, no one in the audience seemed to mind. That quip received louder applause than any song all night.

By Seth Mnookin

Seth Mnookin is the co-director of the Graduate Program in Science Writing at MIT and he blogs at the Public Library of Science. His most recent book is "The Panic Virus: The True Story of the Vaccine-Autism Controversy" (Simon & Schuster). His Twitter handle is @sethmnookin.

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