Recording Rebel ChestnuTT Jams at House of Blues

By BRIAN GOLDSTEIN

CONTRIBUTING WRITER

When a musician declares onstage at the House of Blues that “I want everything I do to be unprecedented,” it tempting to swiftly dismiss him as another brash, wishful rock star.

But Cody ChesnuTT’s reputation precedes him, and in late January he managed to cut his own path through the packed floor and have the audience singing backup vocals.

Long before releasing his debut album in October, he became infamous when he jumped onto the set of The Strokes’ video shoot for “Last Nite,” telling bandleader Julian Casablancas that putting him in the video would make history.

When music critics lauded Wilco’s pioneering decision to change record labels to record 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot with full creative control, ChesnuTT turned against the industry entirely.

Dropped by his label, he built a recording studio—called the Sonic Promiseland—in his Los Angeles bedroom and recorded 36 songs, each in one take. Word-of-mouth hype, coupled with brief mention in the New York Times and support from The Roots, generated anticipation for an album release as unique as the artist himself. Turning down record deals reaching seven figures, ChesnuTT sold the first pressings of The Headphone Masterpiece on his website, with his cousin as manager.

The double album is a long, wandering and sometimes abrasive trip through his relationships, family and mind that lives up to much of its hype. Though ChesnuTT runs the risk of cultivating his image at the expense of his music, The Headphone Masterpiece is neither trite nor a one-liner. The music benefits greatly from being recorded without influence from outside producers or label executives.

Indeed, some of the ballads on the 23-song Volume 1 (including “Enough of Nothing” and “The Most Beautiful Shame”) run under a minute long.

ChesnuTT shows a wealth of musical talent throughout, with songs ranging from blues-rock (“The Seed”) to electronic (“Juicin’ the Dark”) and practically everywhere in between. ChesnuTT performs virtually every part on the album, including drums, guitar and stunning falsetto vocals.

An artist with influences as diverse as Prince, the Beatles and the early 20th century blues, it’s no surprise that he made his Boston area debut at the House of Blues. ChesnuTT had the lights switched on to illuminate the portraits of the blues musicians adorning the ceiling. That same humility had led him to record his first video, “Look Good in Leather,” for a mere $5,000.

Before he began to play, he stepped off the stage to personally thank and shake the hands of the better part of the audience. An impassioned opening speech, in which he expressed his belief that we must rail against our “generation of vipers” and seek our own independence, set the mood for the truly unique concert.

Intensely involved with their music, ChesnuTT and his band clearly enjoyed themselves enormously as they danced onstage and chatted with the audience between songs.

Instead of an opening band, ChestnuTT brought a duo he called the “Carter Ensemble,” who performed two songs before the band extended an invitation for vocalists in the audience to come forward and share their art. This thirty-minute digression, which included strong performances from Harvard’s own Richard Maye ’04 and Dominique C. Deleon ’04, was characteristic of ChesnuTT’s two main objectives: promoting independent artists and breaking down the conventions that we expect from live music.

Though “The Seed” was an obvious crowd favorite that had the diverse audience nodding their heads and dancing, ChesnuTT gave an inspired performance with every song, including two not heard on The Headphone Masterpiece. At every step of the way, the artist encouraged audience participation and rallied support for his causes.

As ChesnuTT put it, “this isn’t entertainment; it’s enlightenment.” Like the path he forged through the audience, the road he is carving in the world of music is his own. Cody ChesnuTT stands for the genuine innovation that still exists in music, and the hope that such an artist can succeed without heeding the industry that works to counter that creativity.

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