Vic Chesnutt was the real deal, a man who lived for music and who tirelessly deployed his impish, surly, witty, unflinching perspective in hundreds of songs featuring brilliantly unique wordsmithery and a profound playfulness that thumbed its nose at a life of seriously hard knocks. Vic’s prolific writing – chock of full of real irony, wonderful turns of phrase, humour, rage and tenderness, brutal literalism and ornate observation – constituted a truly original voice and reflected a truly indomitable spirit.
Chesnutt worked with many collaborators over his twenty-year music career, notably with Michael Stipe (R.E.M.) who produced his first couple of records in the early 1990s, and with musicians and groups as diverse as Widespread Panic, Lambchop, Bill Frisell, Jonathan Richman (with whom he toured many times) and Elf Power.
His first album for Constellation, North Star Deserter (2007), was also his first collaboration with Thee Silver Mt Zion (among other label-affiliated musicians in Constellation’s home town of Montreal) and Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, in sessions orchestrated by mutual friend and celebrated New York filmmaker Jem Cohen.
The Vic Chesnutt Band featured an explosive group of arrangers and players, allowing Vic to conjure howling rage and devastating fragile grace in equal measure. The band represented a return of sorts for Guy Picciotto as well, who has kept busy as a producer in the years since Fugazi’s indefinite hiatus, but for whom this project represented his most sustained return to guitar playing and full-on ‘band duty’ (and a welcome one it was). Chad Jones and Nadia Moss are two of Montreal’s best-kept musical secrets, though those who’ve heard and remember Frankie Sparo’s Constellation releases will be familiar with Chad’s brilliantly angular guitar playing, Nadia’s lovely touch on piano and organ, and their combined ear for arrangement. Thee Silver Mt Zion players are well-known for the raw power and intensity of their live playing and the inventiveness of their unique contribution to a punk rock/protest music cannon that embraces classical, psych, blues, rock and folkways tropes.
Shortly after the release of North Star Deserter most of the players set out for a debut European tour, which included a special performance in collaboration with filmmaker Jem Cohen titled Empires Of Tin, commissioned by the Viennale (Vienna International Film Festival). This ‘film hallucination’ with live soundtrack was itself recorded by the Viennale and subsequently issued on DVD as a co-release with Constellation.
One of the songs from Empires, “Coward”, would go on to appear as the lead-off track to Vic’s second album with this band, At The Cut (released in September 2009).
Vic Chesnutt had a well-deserved reputation as a merry prankster of sorts, but also as a true original — a writer/musician who consistently communicated real emotion and meaning through wry observation and dry wit. Chesnutt’s work with his band in concert and on these Constellation albums is his most defiant, his angriest, his most honest, and his tenderest and most personal. With these records, we believe Vic was making some of the strongest — and certainly the most mature — music of his wonderful career.
Since 1990, Vic released 15 critically acclaimed records; was covered by a number of artists on the tribute album Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation (including R.E.M., the Smashing Pumpkins, Madonna and Sparklehorse); was the subject of the 1992 PBS documentary Speed Racer and appeared in the Oscar Award-winning film Sling Blade. Vic died in Athens on 25 December 2009.
Recently published at the very fine Alarm Press...
Great interview with Colin Stetson that offers some real insight into what he does and how he does it. And a re-print of a Vic Chesnutt feature published in issue 37 last year is now online – interviewed shortly before he died; retrospectively heartbreaking.