Does Vic Chesnutt apologize wherever he goes? Or was there some embarrassment last time he came to town? At the brink of launching their set, Chesnutt signaled for Elf Power to hold back as he riffed, solo, a musical apology: “Hello, everybody. It’s good to be here, again. Last time I got too drunk. Sorry.” Bemused chuckles riffled through the gathering of fans as, without missing a beat, the band launched into “Mystery”, the opening track from their just-released collaboration Dark Developments.
As much as Chesnutt apparently enjoys changing up through collaboration (with Bill Frisell, Widespread Panic, Van Dyke Parks, e.g.), it’s surprising that he hasn’t connected before with his fellow Athens, Georgia, artists Elf Power. While Chesnutt’s dark and intricate poetry may not seem an intuitive fit with the Elephant 6 model, Elf Power has frequently explored dark terrain with their pop psychedelia, and are lyrically no strangers to the long, slow grind of ignominy.
Elf Power’s opening set highlighted a few songs from the band’s own March 2008 release In A Cave, but also ranged through their catalogue to include “Hole In My Shoe” from 2004′s Walking With The Beggar Boys and three cuts from 2006′s Back To The Web. The latter collection’s Middle Eastern influence infused “An Old Familiar Scene” and “Come Lie Down With Me”, but “All The World Is Waiting” was played for the thrills and chills of a warp-speed set-closer. With the election still on everyone’s minds, the line “Everyone can see, the world is coming free,” no doubt had a special resonance for many in the room.
Video for Elf Power’s “All The World Is Waiting”.
Chesnutt, too, had the election on his mind. He opened his Dark Developments song “Phil the Fiddler” with a long and funny explanation that it had nothing to do with Joe the Plumber. When the time came to sing the line “Joe the hotel boy,” though, he sang Joe the plumber, anyway. Nothing in the song compares poetically, however, to the lyric “the boy with the aubergine eye” – or, musically, to Chesnutt chewing on his guitar strings in the outro.
Like Elf Power, Chesnutt also drew from his back catalogue, highlighting “Independence Day” from his 1990 release Little and, as if in tribute to this venue inside the venerable Hotel Congress, “Old Hotel” from his 1998 disc The Salesman And Bernadette (a collaboration with Lambchop).
The set’s most humorous features, though, were a couple of songs from the new album: “We Are Mean”, about how country folk and city folk are really pretty much the same, and “Little Fucker”, a song Chesnutt says he wrote about himself. It’s hard to believe, though, that he’s only poking fun. The song says he’s more trouble than he’s worth, that he can’t keep up, that the occasional tear in his eye isn’t worth taking seriously. But what if all that leads to helpless abandonment? Clearly, he does think about that. Of all his quirkily detailed and deeply personal songs, this one might be the most impossible to cover.