Cody Chesnutt, Old Soul

Huddled in the basement with a 4-track cassette recorder, an eccentric youngish soul singer laid a critically acclaimed double cd, The Headphone Master Piece. Through the album sold poorly it was a critical success. Cited for its low-fi grittiness and biting social commentary, “Headphone Masterpiece” caused industry insiders to take notice. Cody Chesnutt’s genius status was cemented with his nomination for the Shortlist Music Prize. Though he did not win folks took notice including The Roots. The world’s most prolific Hip Hop band wanted to cover song, ‘The Seed’. The re-tooled ‘The Seed 2.0’ featured Chesnutt on vocals and guitar. The spare music video featured Chesnutt backed by The Roots. The song not only open Chesnutt’s music to a broader audience, it also launched The Roots into a mainstream rap act.

With the neo-soul musical scene in full swing, Chestnutt toured with The Roots and opened for Erykah Badu. Then he just vanished. Eight years later he released an EP “Black Skin No Value” to limited success and no fanfare.

When Chestnutt took the stage at Brighton Music Hall earlier this month, he made the wait worthwhile. With agility of an old soul man from years gone by, he shimmed across the stage with the easy of a charismatic country preacher. Chestnutt relationship with his band is as entertaining as his music. Making audible calls like a quarterback, he guides his team to musical victory. The tight band undergirds his velvet vocals.

But this was not all show. His song list delved into deep questions, social concerns and above all reflected his maturation as an artist and a man. Early in the set, he employed the audience to repeat of after him—bending low to the crowd clapping his hands. “No turning back” and the crowd responded in kind. Over the course of the evening, the New England music venue became a rural church in the south.

‘Til I Met Thee’, ‘Don’t Wanna Go the Other Way’, and ‘Don’t Follow Me’ are songs of redemption and uncannying honesty. The album and his Brighton Hall performance are disciplined displays of vulnerability that this not haunted by self righteous navel-gazing that lead to the decline of the first neo soul movement. Moreover, the wallowing quality that tampered some of the lyrical potential of “Headphone Masterpiece” is not on “Landing on a Hundred”.

Contemporary R&B reeks of auto-tuned adolescent sexual conquest, bling, and sophomoric lyricism. ‘That’s Still Mama’ takes juvenocracy task for its disrespect of “mama” but does not do so with the kind of talking down to young folks that is on display in much of the black public discourse. “Landing on a Hundred” is vulnerable but not vulgar; respectful without being obsessed with respectability. The musicality of ‘What Kind of Cool (Will We Think of Next) takes aim at the “too cool” to admit one is need posturing in the ghetto. While he has plenty to say about social ills, love, and transformation, Chestnutt takes a Black Nationalist turn that is a central feature of the black soul tradition in America. ‘Under the Spell of a Handout’ begins an eerie tonality and rightfully so. The song protagonist is hungry for freedom but handouts hold him back. Rather accepting handout one must take it. Then song shifts to a blues swing with little rock and roll swing.

He told the Boston audience that his favorite song on “Landing” is ‘Love Is More Than A Wedding Day’ highlights the discipline necessary for a long-term relationship. After the sweat soak and strained soul singer signed autographs, he chatted a bit with Spare Change News.

What was the hiatus about?

A: Trying to grow as a man and as an artist. So I could get out something more substantive. I felt a transition was taking place and was not sure what going to happen. But I needed to dive deeper in the faith. I have a children and wife. I needed to get know that experience.

Where are your from?

A. I was born and raised in Atlanta about 5 minutes from Morris Brown (historically black college in Atlanta).

How did you wind up in North Florida?

A. Around 1987, I moved to Tallahassee to attend Florida A and M University. My sister was attending there and my father graduated from there so I wanted to continue in the family tradition. I met my wife there, actually. After attending community college there, I enrolled in the FAMU’s School of Business and Industry but I was not focused. The music was calling me. In 1990 I went back to Atlanta and started working on the dream.

In the new project, I hear a lot of black church rhythms and references. Even your movements on stage are like that of a preacher. Where does that come from?

A. It is the tradition that I grew up in. As kid sit in the pews you do not realize that you a soaking it all up. In the last 10 years, I really started attending the church to get to know the faith as an adult. As kid you are made to go but I wanted to learn. I started studying, especially the old Southern church tradition. My church is in the rural south and that is different vibe. This allowed me to go back the roots of it all. Foot stomping and handclapping is the real spirit of church. All the real powerful music that we still love today is rooted in that rural southern church experience. On this album, I wanted that feeling with a contemporary conversation. I opened myself to received in the last ten years. At Friendship African Methodist Episcopal church outside Tallahassee, I have been guided.

—Rev. Osagyefo Sekou

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