In the days before Vic Chesnutt played Thursday (Nov. 5) at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, it became clear that ticket sales must have been slow. The venue started offering a two-for-one ticket deal. And sure enough, when Chesnutt showed up on Thursday, attendance was pretty sparse. That’s a shame for all those who missed the show, since it was one of the year’s best.
I’m a latecomer to the Vic Chesnutt fan club, having largely ignored him for years. I’m starting to make up for that, but I still need to fill in the many gaps in my collection of his recordings. I saw him do an acoustic solo set opening for Jonathan Richman earlier this year at the Empty Bottle, which really wowed me. And now I’ve seen Chesnutt perform a different kind of concert, with a six-piece band playing epic, swelling arrangements behind him.
Chesnutt mostly played songs from his new album At the Cut and 2007’s North Star Deserter, both of which he recorded for Constellation Records with a backing band that included members of the great Montreal collective Silver Mt. Zion (and its predecessor, Godspeed! You Black Emperor) as well as Fugazi guitarist Guy Picciotto. Thee Silver Mt. Zion Memorial Orchestra & Tra-La-La Band made my favorite record of 2008, 13 Blues for Thirteen Moon, so I was thrilled at the prospect of seeing these musicians playing with Chesnutt. Not all of that group’s members were in the touring band that came to Chicago, but nevertheless the music had a similar feeling to the orchestral sweep of Silver Mt. Zion at its best.
In the center of it all was Mr. Chesnutt, sitting in his wheelchair, with a small, somewhat worn-looking acoustic guitar hanging over his neck with a tiny white string instead of a guitar strap. The way Chesnutt plucks at his guitar strings, he seems a little uncertain at first, as if he’s afraid he’ll forget the notes. He does hit the right notes, with a somewhat idiosyncratic sense of timing. Like the Empty Bottle show, this concert felt very spontaneous. The other musicians all trained their eyes on Chesnutt as he began most of the songs, plucking his guitar and singing in a seemingly fragile voice. They looked like they were waiting for their cues to start playing, feeling their way into the songs to match Chesnutt’s spirit.
The dynamic range of this concert was startling. At moments, Chesnutt was singing and playing all by himself as the audience quietly listened to each and every creak of the guitar strings and bend in his voice, almost like sitting in Chesnutt’s living room and attending an unplugged performance. And then the songs would erupt as the guitars, keyboards and bowed bass came in, making mountainous, majestic chords. And Chesnutt would rear back his head from the microphone and shout his words up to the mountaintop.
A highlight was the song “Coward,” which is the first track on the At the Cut album, one of the best showcases of what Chesnutt is capable of doing with these musicians. After the band left the stage at the end of the show, Chesnutt stayed and did one acoustic song. Then the group returned and played “Sponge,” from Chesnutt’s 1991 album West of Rome. The crowd was smaller than it should have been, but the fans who were there showed their appreciation with a strong round of applause as Chesnutt wheeled himself backstage.
It’s worth noting here that Chesnutt has not one, but two new albums out this fall. Although it isn’t even mentioned on his own Web site, Vapor Records recently released Chesnutt’s Skitter at the Take-Off, a spare, acoustic studio record he made in collaboration with Jonathan Richman, featuring some of the memorable songs he played at that Empty Bottle show in May. It’s a much different record from At the Cut, but both are recommended. A free six-song sample from At the Cut and North Star Deserter is available at http://vicchesnutt.com/home/audio/.
The opening act Thursday was Clare and the Reasons, who were quite a contrast from Chesnutt. A strange pairing? I suppose, although both of them seem like acts pursuing their singular visions for the music they want to play. Clare and the Reasons, whom I saw opening for My Brightest Diamond last year, played a delightful show of quaintly old-fashioned pop cabaret music from the new album Arrow, complete with violin, clarinet, trombone, kazoo and cool vocal harmonies. No musical saw, however — Clare reported that a zombie stole the band’s saw on Halloween. Gotta watch out for those kleptomatic zombies.