By most standards of showmanship, Vic Chesnutt's performance Monday night at Iota was a mess. He started the show with several minutes of guitar tuning and idle chatter, then lurched through a disorganized set punctuated by false starts, marginally relevant anecdotes and further tedious breaks to tune guitars and ruminate over what to play next. Yet after an hour and a half of this, people in the audience were begging him, "please, please," for just one more song.
Chesnutt has long had a small but almost absurdly loyal following. The representatives of it at Iota filled the air with suggestions and requests between songs, but during each tune the only other sound to be heard was the hum of the air conditioning. Someone seated next to one chatty fellow shushed him for not keeping his conversation to a whisper.
Not every song was equally worthy of this reverence. Chesnutt's strength is his voice, a pained, husky, so-lonesome-you-could-cry thing that can tear into the misery of a song. But the parade of pokey ballads left little variety in the set, not to mention little appeal to the uninitiated.
A pair of vivid, edgier songs later in the set--"Miss Mary," with its tightly wound guitar parts, and "Hot Seat," bolstered by some choppy, defiant strumming--gave a better picture of this Athens, Ga.-based singer-songwriter's talents and helped explain the intensity of his following.