Ultimately, the 38-year-old singer/songwriter, wheelchair-bound for the past twenty years, transcends comparisons altogether. Discovered by his fellow Athenian Michael Stipe in the late '80s, Chesnutt is a true songwriter's songwriter: If accolades from one's peers (from Ian MacKaye to Jonathan Richman, from Howe Gelb to Madonna) translated into record sales, Chesnutt might not be shuttled from one label to another, passed on like a bad penny, forced to eke out a living going from little club to little club. On the other hand, if the great unwashed had the good sense to clasp Chesnutt to their collective bosom, we wouldn't have the pleasure of hearing him in the intimate confines of the Duck Room, the ideal environment for his weary, attenuated moan.
Touring with a full band in support of his brilliant eleventh release, Silver Lake (New West), Chesnutt seems to be in top form. Silver Lake is the most polished, accessible and downright rocking of his albums so far, setting his mordant lyricism against a crazy-quilt instrumental backdrop that drifts from nihilist gospel to twisted country-soul, from singed roots-rock to elegant chamber-folk. On "Sultan, So Mighty," Chesnutt sings from the point of view of a protofeminist eunuch, his eerie falsetto channeling Nina Simone; on the hilarious "Band Camp," he recounts the story of a high-school girl who soaked a tampon in vodka and fell off her stool in science class; on "Styrofoam," he manages to make a biohazard seem endearing. Despite his often heartbreaking subject matter, Chesnutt is an optimist, and his outlook is, like that of most geniuses, essentially comic.
Opening the show is another idiosyncratic genius, violin visionary Andrew Bird, whose new CD, Weather Systems, is a gorgeous, glorious experiment in stripped-down American art rock.