Vic Chesnutt is the real deal, a man who lives for music and who has tirelessly deployed his impish, surly, witty, unflinching perspective in hundreds of songs featuring brilliantly unique wordsmithery and a profound playfulness that thumbs 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 – constitutes a truly original voice and reflects a truly indomitable spirit.
Chesnutt has 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 over the past decade with musicians and groups as diverse as Widespread Panic, Lambchop, Bill Frisell, Jonathan Richman (with whom we has toured many times over the years) 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.
USA music magazine Paste ranked North Star Deserter the best of his numerous collaborative albums over the last dozen years, and the record was widely acclaimed, signaling a true return to form for Vic (though it remained rather criminally overlooked in the USA). A core group of players emerged from this first recording to accompany Vic on two European tours in support of the album: Thierry Amar (bass), Efrim Menuck (guitar), Jessica Moss (violin) and David Payant (drums) all of Thee Silver Mt. Zion, along with Guy Picciotto (guitar) from Fugazi, and Nadia Moss (piano, organ) and Chad Jones (guitar) from Witchies (and previous outfit Frankie Sparo). This same troupe reunited for Vic's second Constellation album, At The Cut (2009), once again recorded by Howard Bilerman at Hotel2Tango in Montreal.
The Vic Chesnutt Band features an explosive group of arrangers and players, allowing Vic to conjure howling rage and devastating fragile grace in equal measure. The band represents 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 represents his most sustained return to guitar playing and full-on 'band duty' (and a welcome one it is). 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.
Vic Chesnutt has a well-deserved reputation as a merry prankster of sorts, but also as a true original — a writer/musician who has 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. Vic is making some of the strongest — and certainly the most mature — music of his wonderful career.
And if this music finds him explicitly staring down (and thumbing his nose at) the face of mortality and working itself deeper into narratives about memory and place and loss — well, Mr. Chesnutt certainly knows of what he sings (having survived a car accident at age 18 that confined him to a wheelchair and has subjected him to an endless cavalcade of complications, procedures, emergencies and towering medical bills ever since), and he sings it without nostalgia, refusing to sentimentalise or platitudinise anything about his profound sense of place (the South, the wheelchair, 21st century America during the bubbles and the terror wars,).
It is refreshing to hear how Vic Chesnutt sidesteps any of the obvious Southern Gothic tropes, lyrically and musically: no vaulted arches, gaping abysses or burning fields here – no 'voicing' of the preacher or the devil, no putting on airs. Vic manages to sing authentically and wholeheartedly, railing against his personal fate without bitterness, without apology, with a sardonic and sometimes angry poetics of the passionately humanist and secular variety: framed by the back porch, championing a humble wisdom, a sincere ethics (without moralising) and a natural literateness. Certainly permitting a wisecrack or three, but never allowing for anything hackneyed or cornball, faux or forced.
Since 1990, Chesnutt has released 15 critically acclaimed records; been 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.