No Flash, No Fanfare: The Music of Vic Chestnutt
They've been patient. The three-piece, self-dubbed "scared little skiffle group" from Athens, Georgia, who back singer-songwriter and recent cause-celebre Vic Chesnutt have been sitting through another in a series of routine soundchecks.This time it's at Maxwell's in Hoboken, an intimate room but one not blessed with superior acoustics. There's a "boominess" to the sound, and it's interfering with the band's ability to hear one another. They have an intricate sound dependent on vocal harmonies and soft interplay, and one minor flaw can offset the entire balance. Besides, their fearless leader is a quadriplegic, prone to individual flights of fancy within their established structure. It's not unlikely that Vic will wander off into a sublime solo when he should be sticking to the key riff. When he does, he'll look over at his wife of six years, bassist Tina Chesnutt, and give her the "I'm being a bad boy" look. In turn, she'll flash him a patient smile and the look that says "Yeah, well, that figures." Vic's whole life has been this way. A reputed class clown, one day in his late teens Vic had more than his share to drink and drove his car into a ditch. Not dead, but wishing he were, Vic spent years rehabilitating what little function he had left. Now, he plays well enough to play rhythm guitar with the band. His struggle has informed more than a few songs. The latest comes two-thirds of the way through his new Capitol Records debut album, About to Choke, which was released in November 1996.On "Hot Seat," with its herky-jerk rhythm, he announces, "What a great day to wake up out of a coma," and later, "I should have kept my trap shut and my monkey in the motherfuckin' basket." But the infamous incident that reshaped his life is merely another moment of what Chesnutt euphemistically calls "sabotage." Tina agrees, and she should know. Vic relishes his role as the devil-child biting into the forbidden fruit and waiting for all hell to come down. She nods vigorously when asked if Vic could be difficult to deal with. He, on the other hand, laughs at this, as his head darts left to right in almost spastic movement. His energy, a youthful ebullience for 33, looks for any release it can muster.Because his physical self now fails him, it often comes out in the excited imagery of his best songs -- words careening recklessly into one another, looking for a way to tell a story that's nothing short of untellable. That hasn't stopped others from trying his songs on for size. Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation, The Songs of Vic Chesnutt, features the likes of R.E.M, Hootie & the Blowfish, Smashing Pumpkins, and Garbage, all taking cracks at the Vic Chesnutt songbook. But their versions never catch the intimacy or devil-may-care diction that fire up Chesnutt's own versions.He played around Athens, Georgia for years, self-described as "unambitious." R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe saw him and immediately threw him into the studio. The results, dubbed Little, were released by the tiny Texas Hotel label out of Santa Monica, California.Featuring Vic playing live, the album has a home-spun quality and features some of Vic's most enduring portraits: "Isadora Duncan," "Giupetto," "Danny Carlisle."Vic recorded three more albums for the label: West of Rome, Drunk and Is The Actor Happy? Each presents a slightly different angle of the man, and each has much to recommend it."I try not to write too many songs anymore," says Vic. "I try to wait for them. I fiddle around here and there. I think of an image I want. I'll write it down. Then I just let it simmer for a long time." These days he's slowed down. Too busy taking care of the day-to-day adventures of the rock 'n' roll business. For Vic this has meant many things, not the least of which is the simple childhood dream of being a rock star."Every kid thinks, 'I'm gonna be a rock star someday.' I'm always going further than I ever thought I would." The Maxwell's crowd is for the most part, quiet, reverent, actually sitting down trying to absorb the vibe Vic gives without trying. When I mention to him how the stop-and-start rhythms of his songs aggravate people looking for a groove, he gets a special kick out of it, repeating the idea to Tina and laughing to himself. The devilish twinkle of the eyes, the child-like wonder in his laugh, all express a harmless, vaguely sadistic joy over this ability of his to confound and frustrate those attempting to understand him. Someone in the crowd calls for "Onion Soup."Vic mulls it over. He turns to Tina. "Yeah?" he ponders. "OK, but we have to play it slow."The order of the night is that for all Vic's stored energy, after a long car drive up from the previous night's gig in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, he's simply too tired to give anything past a crawl. The result is an incredibly long, brooding take on Is the Actor Happy's most upbeat track. The crowd applauds fervently. Throughout the performance the band members quietly express their brilliance. There's no flash or fanfare. Vic never even introduces them. But the guitar player, Alex McManus, gives Chesnutt's songs the full-bodied support that recalls what Robbie Robertson did for Dylan or what Kevin Salem did for Freedy Johnston. The rhythm section, drummer Jimmy Davidson and Tina on bass, work very unlike the Rolling Stones in sound but exactly like them in execution. The bass and drums never lock the traditional way but instead keep time slightly before the beat, allowing the songs to coax and settle loosely around Vic."With the band it's more like playing a game," says Vic. "I'm really horrible at getting up the nerve to say 'you oughta play this.' Why should I tell them what to play? I'm not one of these people who has a grand musical vision in my head, like sounds I hear. I write them, and they sound like a guy with an acoustic guitar singing. I like to experiment, but as far as what I'm writing, it's the old folky way." About to Choke combines several approaches. Recorded three times, once with his band, then with a few guys in Agitpop and finally solo, the album is brilliant collection of vignettes that further outline Chesnutt's definitive "old folky way.""I tried to make three different records. I've picked the best of them," says Vic. "It was a tough record to make. I didn't know what the fuck to do. I didn't know what songs to record. I just kinda fell apart during this record. I think I'm at my best playing live. I never do as well on record as I do live. I always sabotage it some way." By show's end, the Maxwell's crowd has proof. His records are good, even great, but it doesn't compare to seeing and feeling it live, catching glimpses of his humor, a facial contortion here, a sneaky laugh there.There's a warmth to it all, much like sitting around a campfire and hearing these great little songs from a guy who never knew it could happen."I was hanging around Athens," says Vic. "I moved there just out of high school. I went to college, dropped out, went to nightclubs. I didn't consider a musical career. I was happy doing what I was doing. Now I get to meet all kinds of people, all my heroes. I get to travel. It's really fun. It's the rock 'n' roll dream, I guess."