God and the devil are still raging inside of Cody ChesnuTT. He's just making more thoughtful decisions these days.
The crowded lobby of the boisterous Belmont hotel is loud with end-of-happy-hour-chatter. Cody ChesnuTT is offering me a plate of hummus and artisan flatbread that neither of us would even touch. An hour from now, he will sit along a poolside view of Dallas' skyline and headline the final installment of the 2013 KXT Summer concert series, Barefoot At The Belmont. It will be his first Dallas performance in a decade, and he will do it alone with no backing band, which he is uneasy about. Tonight he is just a man, his guitar, and a set list of strictly new material.
After nearly a ten year hiatus, ChesnuTT has hit the road again in support of his latest effort, Landing On A Hundred. While fans anxiously awaited the followup to 2002's 98-minute opus, The Headphone Masterpiece, ChesnuTT was heading in a different direction. He says he'll never play his debut material live again. Few artists work so hard to create such an incredible body of work only to abandon it completely.
"It's family entertainment now. And I say that with a smile, not with like, ugh," ChesnuTT says. He emphasizes his sentiment with an exasperated shrug. He means appropriate for families, but it's also true that he inspires a certain kind of familiarity. During the course of his set, the stage area will be crashed both by an intoxicated man in a yarmulke who insists that he is ChesnuTT's "brother from another mother" and a little boy named Jackson. Both refused to leave the stage area at first, until ChesnuTT gave them a hug and a high five, respectively.
To tour again after a decade out of the game, it's been difficult to be away from his main source of inspiration: His own actual family. His hope is to one day be able to take them all with him during long stretches on the road.
"Just last night, my daughter had a sense that I was leaving again and she wouldn't let me out of her sight. She was all over me until about 12:30 at night. It's an adjustment to make for sure. I tell them where I'm going and why. My wife and I actually borrowed a page from Malcom X's book. Whenever he traveled abroad, he would ask his wife to show the children where he was on the map," says ChesnuTT, whose three young children have only just recently seen him perform live for the first time.
On the Belmont's lawn, ChesnuTT will perform the touching sonic love letter "Love is More Than a Wedding Day." After almost 19 years of marriage, he wrote the song at a time of disconnect in his relationship, in an attempt to bring the love back into his home. He urges the poolside audience to take the message of the moment with them after the show. "If you ever feel like giving up on love, remember this right here. Come back to this moment we're creating together."
A couple near the front feels compelled to hold hands and affectionately rest their heads on each other's shoulders during the song.
Though he doesn't seem to regret the less wholesome material of The Headphone Masterpiece, ChesnuTT acknowledges that overall it plays more to people's baser instincts. At this point in his evolution as an artist, and as a man, it is important to him that his music create a sense of happiness within people.
"It's about having something that everyone can benefit from. I think back to growing up, and hearing those great classic Motown records at cook-outs and family functions. Everybody, the children were dancing, the adults were dancing. I think that feeling is lost nowadays. ... Good and loving music, music that has genuine joy to it," he says.
"I know that there are a lot of people who would have liked to hear The Headphone Masterpiece [on this tour]. I just try to be very honest and straightforward with where I am as a person. I trust that their humanity will recognize my own."
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ChesnuTT cites his main musical inspirations as Marvin Gaye, Donnie Hathaway, Bill Withers, and the like. It is clear from the juxtaposition of ChesnuTT's two bodies of work that what he has most in common with these influences is the constant struggle to fight one's own demons, the interpersonal struggle between good and evil. Performing new material seems to be a strong motivating factor in keeping ChesnuTT's own baser instincts at bay.
ChesnuTT is the kind of performer who forges a close connection with his audience. In urging the crowd to coo background melodies, and sing back to him mantras like "No turning back," he is able to focus the positive energy that it is so important to him to create in a live setting. After a standing ovation, he will perform an encore a capella, tuning us all into the joy of this music without strumming a single note.