Vic Chesnutt is doing what he does. Tucked behind a doorway of Cedar Street Courtyard during the South by Southwest music conference, the Athens, Ga., singer greets an endless stream of well-wishers. All seem to have something they desperately need to share with him, and as he listens, his dinner sits uneaten for the better part of an hour.
Chesnutt -- who has used a wheelchair since he was 18, when his spinal cord was injured in a car accident -- graciously receives all comers, and although the details of their conversations are inaudible, surely most are praising his performance earlier this evening, when he introduced songs from his new record, "Silver Lake."
It was indeed a knockout set, with Chesnutt in better voice than ever, backed by a trio of Athens musicians and singing what are sure to be remembered as Chesnutt classics in coming years. Best known for dark, mordantly funny folk songs that are invariably compared to the Southern Gothic fiction of Flannery O'Connor and William Faulkner, the 38-year-old Chesnutt has once again created a series of vivid, sometimes provocative and always original tunes, from deceptively lighthearted ditties on gender politics and love at far sight ("Girl's Say" and "Fa-La-La") to sweeping, almost epic journeys to North Africa and a harem ("Zippy Morocco" and "Sultan, So Mighty").
Chesnutt's 45-minute set was enthusiastically received by the packed crowd at Cedar Street. And critical reaction has so far been positive for "Silver Lake," which Chesnutt recorded last year at the Paramour Estate in the eponymous Los Angeles neighborhood.
"Everybody's gone crazy for it," Chesnutt said a few minutes before going onstage. "And I didn't know [that they would]. When I was recording it, I thought, 'This is crap' -- one minute. And then one minute I was thinking, 'This is the coolest thing I've ever done.' "
Indeed, longtime Chesnutt fans might have to take a minute to wrap their ears around "Silver Lake," which surely qualifies as the artist's slickest album yet. Chesnutt was discovered in the 1980s by R.E.M. singer and Athens neighbor Michael Stipe, who proceeded to help Chesnutt secure a record contract and produced his first two albums, "Little" and "West of Rome." Since then, Chesnutt's following has grown to include fans such as Emmylou Harris, Joni Mitchell and Madonna. His still modest but devoted audience has faithfully followed as he's changed labels and sounds -- from spare, handmade recordings to more ambitious collaborations with bands like Widespread Panic and the Nashville alternative country group Lambchop. On "Silver Lake," Chesnutt worked with veteran L.A. session players including bassist Darryl Johnson, keyboardist Patrick Warren, guitarist Doug Pettibone and percussionist Don Heffington, as well as Christina Aguilera's drummer, Mike Stinson.
Vic Chesnutt and Christina Aguilera sharing band members? If it sounds improbable on paper, the sonic results are impressive. "Silver Lake" is indisputably a Vic Chesnutt record, with catchy but idiosyncratic tunes and lyrics featuring Christ reconsidering his Resurrection, a fast-living teenager who sneaks alcohol into school in unprintable ways, an elliptical meditation inspired by a 5th-century Chinese poem, and a character named for a 1950s University of Georgia football star. But with its languid bass and guitar grooves and tight vocal harmonies, "Silver Lake" often sounds like it could have been made at Motown; "Zippy Morocco," which features lush orchestral sounds created on a Chamberlain keyboard, as well as castanets, hand drums and chanting in the style of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, would be right at home on a Peter Gabriel record.
"I said, 'Let's take it right to Morocco,' " recalls Mark Howard, who produced "Silver Lake" and whose idea it was to use most of the players. Howard, a protege of producer Daniel Lanois who has worked with Gabriel and Harris as well as U2, Bob Dylan and R.E.M., recalls that Chesnutt was initially unsure about the "Zippy Morocco" arrangement. "He was like, 'That sounds kind of African,' " Howard says, laughing.
Chesnutt agrees that he was hesitant at first. "I'd demoed the song with a real kind of folky flavor," he says, "and I wasn't happy with [Mark's version] at first. But then I got swept away by the energy. It's very cinematic, I think. It really kind of transports me."
In addition to the studio band, Howard brought in seasoned background singers Faithe Lambert and C.C. White to accompany Chesnutt on "Sultan, So Mighty," a slow, eerie song sung from the perspective of a eunuch who is undermining his boss on the sly. To approximate the sound of a castrato, Chesnutt sings in a falsetto, one part Smokey Robinson and one part Billie Holiday, to create the album's haunting, technically masterful centerpiece. "He was getting off on it so much," Howard says of the recording session. "When you have people who can really sing and their pitch is good, you meet their level. As I was watching him I could see that he was being elevated. A whole other thing came out of him."
As much of a departure as "Silver Lake" represents, Chesnutt sounds almost dismissive of the record. "It wasn't what I really wanted to make, exactly," he says, explaining that when he first signed with his new label, New West Records, he wanted to make "an overproduced record, like a Van Dyke Parks record, with lots of orchestra, arty-farty." He said the same thing to Howard, who seized the chance to lend Chesnutt's distinctive voice higher production values than it has ever had. "Vic had said to me, when I first talked to him, that his whole life he wanted to have a very produced record," Howard recalls. "So I thought, 'What an opportunity! Here we go!' That kind of set the pace for the sound of the record."
Chesnutt admits that he's been worried that fans who love the raw, plaintive quality of his solo performances might reject "Silver Lake's" more polished sounds. Still, he says, he's happy with "Silver Lake." "I'm wracked with doubt always," he says resignedly. "It's still hard for me to listen to it. There's only one song [where] I think, 'Wow, this is great.' And it's 'Sultan.' It's the only song that I think is really different and great. Everything else is, like, good. I mean, I've written these kinds of songs since I was 5. This is what I do."
Vic Chesnutt will appear Monday night at 8:30 at Iota, 2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. Admission is $15. For information call 703-522-8340. To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8185.