So long, Vic

The Constellation Records Web site reported the tragic news this afternoon:

“Surrounded by family and friends, Vic Chesnutt died in Athens Georgia this afternoon, Friday 25 December at 14:59. In the few short years that we knew him personally, Vic transformed our sense of what true character, grace and determination are all about. Our grief is inexpressible and Vic’s absence unfathomable. We will make more information available according to the wishes of Vic’s family and friends. Don and Ian”

I “knew” Vic Chesnutt only a short time myself — and I only knew him musically. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I did not pay much attention to his music for years, belatedly discovering only this year how great he was. The two concerts I saw by him in 2009 — a solo set opening for Jonathan Richman at the Empty Bottle, and a set with a full band at Lincoln Hall last month — were two of the strongest performances I saw by anyone in the past year. (And a friend tells me Chesnutt put on yet another top-notch performance in 2009 when he came through town with Elf Power as his backup band.)

My memories of those two shows are still so vivid that it feels as if they just happened — as if I were still standing there in Lincoln Hall, a few feet away from Vic, snapping some photos of him as he sat there in his wheelchair. I loved the quirky wisecracks he made in between songs, and how he gave full voice to his vulnerable, heartfelt lyrics during the songs. When Chesnutt and his band were playing the song “Coward” at Lincoln Hall, the naked emotional power and musical drama of the song literally gave me goosebumps, and I remember thinking at that moment, that it was surely one of the best performances of a single song I had seen in a long while.

I’m only beginning to discover everything Chesnutt accomplished — relearning to play the guitar after becoming quadriplegic in a car accident at the age of 18, releasing 15 albums, collaborating with many varied musicians — but I have no doubt that his death is a great loss.

The exact circumstances of Chesnutt’s death haven’t been officially confirmed, but I fear that his mounting debt for medical bills played some role in it. He discussed this during the recent interview with Terry Gross. The guy owed tens of thousands of dollars, and he was putting off an operation. How sickening that he was in this situation … and ended up dying just as the U.S. Senate was voting on health-care reform.

Chesnutt’s friend, singer Kristin Hersh, set up a fund on her Web page to “accept donations on behalf of his family to defray the expenses associated with his recent hospitalizations and death.”

Hersh also says: “What this man was capable of was superhuman. Vic was brilliant, hilarious and necessary; his songs messages from the ether, uncensored. … I don’t think I like this planet without Vic; I swore I would never live here without him. But what he left here is the sound of a life that pushed against its constraints, as all lives should. It’s the sound of someone on fire. It makes this planet better…” (Read more of her tribute here.)

Flirted With You All My Life

“Flirted With You All My Life” by Vic Chesnutt (from To the Cut)

I am a man.
I am self-aware.
And everywhere I go
You’re always right there with me.
I flirted with you all my life,
Even kissed you once or twice
And to this day I swear it was nice
But clearly I was not ready.

When you touched a friend of mine,
I thought I would lose my mind.
But I found out with time
That really, I was not ready, no, no.
Oh, death. Oh, death.
Oh, death. Really, I’m not ready.

Oh, death, you hector me,
Decimate those dear to me.
You tease me with your sweet relief.
You are cruel and you are constant.
When my mom was cancer-sick,
She fought but then succumbed to it.
But you made her beg for it.
“Lord Jesus, please I’m ready.”
Oh, death. Oh, death.
Oh, death. Really, I’m not ready, no, no.
Oh, death. Oh, death.
Oh, death. Clearly, I’m not ready, no, no.

(Free download of the song.)

Vic Chesnutt

Terrible news: Singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt is in a coma. Only two days ago, I listed his album At the Cut at No. 2 on my best records of 2009… And the two shows I saw by him in 2009 rank among the year’s best performances. He’s an amazing musician, and I really, really hope we all have the chance to see him perform again.

Update (12/25/09, 2 a.m.): According to sources including Spinner, Vic Chesnutt is dead. What a loss.

Update (12/25/09, 9:37 a.m.): I’m wondering now what the actual situation is with Chesnutt. It appears that Billboard reported he had died, and then changed it story back to saying he is in a coma. Here’s a rundown of what various sites reported:

In any case, the situation looks grim for Chesnutt fans. I highly recommend listening to the “Fresh Air” interview with Chesnutt from last month, in which he talks about previous suicide attempts and his struggles to pay medical bills. In spite of it all, Chesnutt sounds optimistic in many ways in this interview, talking about how he wasn’t ready for death.

Update (12/25/09, 12:51 p.m. CST): Spinner changed its Vic Chesnutt story. (I’m not sure exactly when.) “his label … confirms [he] is still in a coma.”

Vic Chesnutt at Lincoln Hall

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

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.

Photos of Vic Chesnutt and Clare and the Reasons.

A week full of concerts

Phew! Eight concerts in the last seven days! And it’s been quite a run of good shows. Summing up what I’ve seen the last few days…

Art Brut was in town for five straight days of concerts at Schubas. I love it when a band does an extended stand at a smaller venue rather than doing one show in a bigger room. It takes more of a commitment from the band, but the result is that more fans get to see the group up-close in an intimate space. And the guys in Art Brut are always such fun, I gladly would have seen them more than once this week if there hadn’t been so many other good shows to see. I saw Art Brut on Tuesday (June 9), when the opening act was Team Band, a Chicago group trying very hard to be like Art Brut. Hey, what the heck — Art Brut leader Eddie Argos has previously suggested creating Art Brut franchises in various cities. Argos even joined Team Band onstage for one song, singing the lyrics he’d just learned a short time earlier.

At times, Art Brut has seemed almost as much of a comedy act as a rock band, thanks to Argos’ cheeky, self-referential lyrics. I’m enjoying their third and latest CD, with the terrific title Art Brut Vs. Satan, and Tuesday’s show was an energetic blast of very English punk rock, with a mix of catchy choruses and Argos’ humorous patter in the verses. As usual, Argos kept on referring to the band in the third person — “Ready, Art Brut?” — and he was sweatily leaping around and gesturing like mad. A highlight was the moment when he used his microphone cable as a jumping rope. It was a slight disappointment not to hear full-length versions of the classic Art Brut tracks “Formed a Band” and “Top of the Pops,” but Argos slyly dropped pieces of those choruses into other songs. And Argos served up not one but two songs about “D.C. Comics” — the actual song with that title, plus a completely reworked take on “Modern Art” that replaced most of the references to modern art with comic books instead. By the end of the week, Argos posted a Twitter comment about how much he was going to miss Schubas.

Photos of Art Brut and Team Band.

On Wednesday (June 10) I was at the Empty Bottle to see Pink Mountaintops, a side project by the leader of Black Mountain, Stephen McBean. Or is it fair to call it a side project? I mean, he’s done three records under the Pink Mountaintops name and just two under the Black Mountain moniker. Black Mountain may be the band he’s best known for, but he saves some excellent songs for Pink Mountaintops. On the previous Pink record, Axis of Evol, I had some trouble discerning exactly what the difference was between McBean’s Black and Pink projects. The difference is clearer on the latest CD, Outside Love. The songs are more concise than the typical Black Mountain jam. Some of them have a hard and fuzzy sounds reminiscent of the Jesus and Mary Chain and others are more like country rock. It all sounded very nice in concert, and we were also treated to a couple of good opening bands. Quest for Fire (including a couple of musicians who also played with Pink Mountaintops) played jammy guitar rock reminiscent of Black Mountain, while Suckers played intriguing rock with a touch of glam and psychedelia.

Photos of Pink Mountaintops, Quest for Fire and Suckers.

Thursday (June 11) was a really special night at the Empty Bottle, with a great double bill of Vic Chesnutt and Jonathan Richman. Sitting alone on the stage in his wheelchair, hunched over his acoustic guitar, Chesnutt managed to get the normally chatty crowds at the Bottle to listen intently to his quirky and heartfelt songs — he did pause one song to point out some “chatties” in the crowd, joking that the young ladies were talking about how handsome he is. Chesnutt introduced a few songs by noting that he had written them recently and might forget the chords and lyrics. And he did say “sorry” a few times as he tried to find his way through the songs, starting them over again. That’s the sort of uncertainty that can seem like a fault for many performers, but Chesnutt was so casual about it that it actually heightened the feeling that this was a performance akin to watching him in his living room. As he remarked at one point, “I know I’m going to fuck this one up but that hasn’t stopped me yet tonight.” Chesnutt said he’s recorded new music with both Jonathan Richman and Silver Mt. Zion. He closed with a song that he dubbed “the epic one” — “Worst Friend in the World.”

He was followed by Richman, who was — well, he was Jonathan Richman, a singular and strange guy. Very entertaining in his own way. If you go to see a Richman concert in the hope of hearing him do some of his early songs with the Modern Lovers, you’re probably going to be out of luck. And I have to confess I haven’t kept up with his recent records, so I wasn’t that familiar with the songs he played Thursday. But his humor and earnestness are immediately accessible, whether or not you’ve heard the songs before. Richman sang some songs in French or Spanish, and his acoustic guitar playing all night had a Spanish flair to it. He often let the music fall into an improvised groove with drummer Tommy Larkins. As Richman noted at one point during an extended riff: “This isn’t a song or anything. It’s just a beat.” Richman occasionally set down his guitar and picked up a cowbell or some jingle bells and pranced around on the stage, making some percussion. His eyes remained wide all night, as he seemed to be staring into the faces of individual audience members (including me)… And every few minutes, that stare would give way to a childish grin.

Photos of Jonathan Richman and Vic Chesnutt.

One more concert to report on: PJ Harvey and John Parish Friday at the Riviera. More on that later…