Good in Leather

Boho. Shaman. Flapper. Dun. Hippie—the semiotic fireworks shooting off Cody ChesnuTT‘s outfit alone made for compelling viewing Sunday night at S.O.B.’s. With buzz befitting an artist of far wider renown, ChesnuTT has turned his no-fi double CD, The Headphone Masterpiece, into a house-packing phenomenon. Onstage, though, the able performer does battle with the Atlas of the black rock movement. On his catchy album, he has a gift for plain, sexually charged lyrics that induce grins before offense can settle in, and his agile voice can flit between barnstorming gospel-infused burners and quirky, temperate folk. But flexibility isn’t force, and live, it lacks the distinction and punch of his sartorial choices.

On Masterpiece, he finds his share of grooves, but here, he was content to rock in the most traditional sense, taking cues from the late ’50s to the early ’70s. “Got no car, got no sweetheart/All I got is this guitar,” he sang, and scampered across the stage Chuck Berry-style. An ambassador and a marketer, he shook hands with fans, and ceded the mic midway to a trio of artistic audience members, including actor Malik Yoba, who displayed a fine tenor. When a shy singer named Jeremy James crooned that he felt naked without his guitar, ChesnuTT, ever the populist, happily turned over his ax.

But while his single “Looks Good in Leather” might play with the classic rebel archetype, there’s only a wink if you want there to be. To wit, he sang, “Loving America to me is nothing but rock and roll.” But after the incendiary opening set by Tamar-Kali, who dedicated a violent kiss-off song “to all the warmongers,” Cody’s old-school rock jingoism— ironic or not, progressive or not—felt simple and wardrobe-deep. —Jon Caramanica

Scary Progsters

Tool brought true Halloween spirit to Nassau Coliseum. “And now, a message from our sponsor,” intoned modern-primitive vocalizer Maynard James Keenan (in body paint and Speedo), as he introduced a videotaped Timothy Leary, who advised the assembled to “think for yourself” and, you know, “question authority.” Leary’s appearance from beyond preceded the thunderous abstraction of “Third Eye,” the prog-metal leviathan’s “Dark Star.” Piloted by Neil Peart disciple Danny Carey, the band embarked on an increasingly electronic science experiment that devolved into eight dark minutes of bone-shaking tone that had half the audience addressing departed ancestors in unknown tongues and the other half loudly cursing the venue’s rock-show beer ban.

Halfway into the year-and-a-half-long tour that’s followed their dark, arty masterpiece Lateralus, the band has made psychedelic-Buddhist imagery of cover artist Alex Grey the visual focus, displacing attention from themselves onto two enormous backdrops: a radiant Janus-like image of a two-faced woman gazing onto a pair of babies, with death’s heads comprising the negative space between, and an even trippier surface—what’s the opposite of Day-Glo?—covered with swirling eyes. The group functions like characters in Japanese Noh drama. What other lead singer would relegate himself to a small riser behind the guitarists?

Banners displaying Grey’s lysergic anatomies dropped as the band plowed into the murky undertow of “Triad.” They were joined by members of death-metal openers Messhugah for a percussion jam that wouldn’t have seemed out of place at a Rusted Root gig, slammed into an explosive “Lateralus,” and called it quits after asking us to “pursue our dreams” and, you know, “create something positive.” Turn on, tune in, drive home safely. —Richard Gehr

Imagine Me and You

Mountain Goat John Darnielle’s project is fundamentally democratic: Use vernacular speech and the major chords God gave every freethinking camp counselor to explore the infinite miracle of being an American in love with the world. (Imagine Phil Ochs with the proper medication.) When Darnielle opened his set Wednesday at the Knitting Factory with nothing but an acoustic guitar and said “We’re the Mountain Goats,” it wasn’t just a warm-up joke but a reminder that we, all of us, built this city on rock and roll. The immediacy of recording albums on a handheld Panasonic cassette recorder and the profit margins of indie labels have allowed Darnielle to release a bible of confessional songs and recruit a paying, public “we” to protect and serve the intensely domestic “you” and “I” that dominate his songs.

The show coincides with the release of Tallahassee on 4AD, a slightly larger indie than Darnielle’s usual outlets. He cherry-picked the album’s best songs and reached back to Sweden and Zopilote Machine for a live Goats primer. Many songs find Darnielle battling externalities including, but not limited to, vodka, guns, rain, driving, and his absent lover. The capacity crowd sang along, even for cassette-only obscurities, and hooted when Darnielle crested word-choked verses and rolled down the other side into ringing choruses that begin, nine times out of 10, with the word I.

Darnielle’s fearless voice is prettier and bigger than the Panasonic has led us to believe, and once he gets to strumming, the BPMs rise five to 10 clicks. When he announced that he was using a pick only because he tore off his fingernail at another show, it wasn’t just bragging—Darnielle’s relationship to his songs is physical. (If this is bedroom rock, he must jump up and down on the bed a lot.) As applause for the encore faded, Darnielle stowed his guitar and pulled out the merch boxes. A six-deep crowd formed at the edge of the stage, and many walked away with three or four CDs. Right now, we’re all Mountain Goats, voting any which way we can. —Sasha Frere-Jones