CAMBRIDGE - Jonathan Richman's sweet indie-pop tunes are packed with positivity and endearing tales sung in several Romance languages. Vic Chesnutt delivers mesmerizing ballads made of expressionistic lines mired in dark humor. But what a weirdly compelling double bill they made at the Middle East Thursday night. For all their differences, they share common ground, and it's on the quiet fringes of pop music's comfort zone.
Richman, who decades ago transitioned from eccentric proto-punk to quirky troubadour, always seems vaguely psychopathic in concert. In the intimate setting of the Middle East's upstairs room, at the first of his two sold-out shows here, his quirks were magnified, and for devoted fans the effect was charming. For non-cult members, patience was a virtue.
Backed only by his longtime percussionist, Tommy Larkins, Richman strummed his classical guitar with Latin flair and performed a good chunk of his forthcoming album. Some were straight from the heart, like "This Romance Will Be Different for Me," "Le Printemps Des Amoreux Est Venue," and the album's title track, "Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild." Others - "Old World" and "Es Como el Pan" - grappled with the challenge and importance of letting go of the past.
There was a signature skewed snapshot of the art world, "No One Was Like Vermeer," an ideological companion piece to earlier Richman paeans to Van Gogh and Picasso. The new songs nestled comfortably alongside such arch, genteel rock tunes as "Give Paris One More Chance" and "The Lonely Little Thrift Store."
Earnestness and iconoclasm are generally separate entities in pop, but Richman comes off as utterly sincere and incredibly odd at the same time. His default facial expression is, as ever, that of a surprised toddler. He stepped often to the lip of the stage, hand to his heart, an unplugged crooner, and the way he locked gazes with audience members felt like something other than an effort to connect. It seemed needy.
As if to compensate, Richman's speaking voice sounded unnatural, and his between-song banter came across like prefab stream-of-consciousness - even when waxing nostalgic about his hometown. Of course, that may be the only way a 56-year-old man can reproduce the childlike wonder a 3-year-old from Natick feels inhaling Boston bus fumes for the first time.
Chesnutt is a gifted singer-songwriter in the Southern Gothic vein. He delivered a handful of powerful, enigmatic tracks from last year's "North Star Deserter" devoid of the recording's lush production, and in the stripped-down solo setting the songs were excruciatingly sad, slow, and striking. And funny.
Chesnutt, who's as wry as he is poetic, opened his set with a Jonathan Richman (read: self-referential) parody and went on to blur the line between love and pity, hope and disappointment, with self-effacing humor that bordered on unnerving.