If you combined equal parts James Brown and Otis Redding, a splash of Hendrix and a dash of old time swagger, you might come close to figuring out just what Cody ChesnuTT is made of. In his own way, he’s found out how to blend hip-hop beats, soulful jazz stylings, silky smooth vocals and a sprinkling of Motown showmanship into a performance that feels almost… nostalgic. Cody’s pure love for the show and the art of the song truly comes from his heart, bursting at the seams with passion and care.
Before Cody took the stage, the task of warming up the cold San Francisco night fell to Siddhartha, a local garage rock outfit that really somehow defies labels and explanations. It was hard to nail down a genre to put them under, and perhaps this is just fine with them. They were somehow able to take the hypnotic, winding guitar riffs prominent in classic rock and marry them to the fast, pounding rhythms of punk rock.
Their set was a bit rough around the edges, with some impromptu direction from their frontman, Marlon Hauser before and during. Small things like delaying the count-in and letting a solo run ever so much longer all contributed to the homegrown vibe that they seem to exude. I found myself struggling to find a cogent simile, a hook to hold on to when I was trying to define this group. Nothing came to mind, and that’s just fine with me. The real surprise of their set was “The Fire Next Time,” a fast-paced tune that was presented in contrast to the rest of the slower, almost trance-like set. It had the crowd bobbing along and vibing excitedly.
Much like how Siddhartha can flip sides as different as classic rock and punk rock like a spinning coin, Cody ChesnuTT represents the opposite side of that same coin.
Otis Redding spilled from the speakers if he were a ghostly herald to the soulful performance waiting for us on the other side of the intermission. It seemed fitting background noise to the chilled out crowd, excited to listen and watch Cody bare his heart on stage. In a lot of ways, his music has been able to capture the true, positive theme of soul. His high-energy set strongly showcased soul’s prevailing themes of struggle, pain, and above all else: love.
Friend and hype-man Martin Luther (of Across the Universe film fame) came out to greet the crowd, and do typical… hype-man things, but he was very forward with a warning: Cody ChesnuTT had been feeling under the weather lately, and he wanted to temper our expectations for the show. From that point on, it was hard to watch the show without this framework, this lens of wondering just how good it will be. Worries and doubts as to the show’s quality and Cody’s performance were all quickly blown away as he stormed the stage, his helmet delicately perched atop his head, wielding his guitar.
Any pretense that this was going to be anything short of an amazing show vanished as he broke right into “That’s Still Mama,” looking and sounding like he just stepped right out of the 70s. It didn’t take much to get the crowd bouncing and nodding along, feeling every note spilling from Cody’s mouth. True to his southern heritage, he teased and squeezed every note, every pause, making the crowd wait in anticipation of what he’d do next. They were literally hanging on every note, and he knew that we were all eating out of the palm of his hand.
It was hard to see how he could possibly be sick as he twisted and turned, kicking off every song with a bit of flare. He punched the final note of “What Kind of Cool (Will We Think of Next)” with all the gusto of Muhammad Ali moving in for a knockout blow. Juxtaposed with all the intensity of the first half of the set, he slowed things down with “Love is More Than a Wedding Day,” featuring an interlude where his illness began to show.
Cody sat down on one of the monitors and waxed poetic about how this song came to be, and his relationship with his wife. It was hard to disagree with what he was talking about, as shouts of assent emerged from the crowd. Every so often he would wipe his brow with a towel, the sweat sliding down from underneath his stifling helmet. He was soldiering on, in spite of everything, because he “really felt the love” the crowd was giving him.
As he stepped to the side of the stage for a few moments of recovery, his good friend Martin Luther once again took the stage to serenade the crowd with an a capella version of his song, “Muse Sick Dreamz.” It was a dreamy, incredibly welcome breather, set apart from Cody’s charismatic performance.
Before too long, Cody began sending us off with “Don’t Wanna Go the Other Way,” getting the crowd to chant along. It capped off what seemed like one of the hardest-won performances, given his health. However, as is evident, he did not let sickness nor drunken fans sway him from giving us his all, and showing the crowd what true soul and R&B are about. After singing his thank yous, he left the stage, and took to the crowd. Ever the showman, he was mingling and shaking hands as he made his way to the merchandise table, where he ended his night.
If this show can be defined by only three words, you’d find that they are the same three words that are prevalent throughout all of soul and R&B: pain, struggle, and love. Cody fought through his pain to deliver a performance that many won’t soon forget. He shared his struggle with his wife, and much of life in general, connecting with the audience on a level often reserved for conversations between friends. Most of all, he endured all of this, he put up with everything for one reason: love. Love for the show, love for the crowd, and love for the music.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro.