Bold Chesnutt

No subject is sacred for the wheelchair-bound Georgian, including JFK’s sexploits.

Several years ago, Guy Picciotto, best known as the guitarist of Fugazi, attended a Vic Chesnutt show at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. It was part of a free concert series held in the venue's main hallway."You've got lots of tourists milling around," says Picciotto. "You've got the big bust of JFK's head there, chandeliers hanging, and Vic's sound check was just this super-profane, sarcastic monologue about what a horndog JFK was and how ostensibly hot Jackie O was."Picciotto says tourists looked around in confused distress, shielding their children from Chesnutt's vile mouth. "Then," says Picciotto, "he played a show that broke all their hearts."All great artists are misunderstood in one way or another. When Vic Chesnutt is considered at all, it's often as a tragic figure whose past missteps continue to haunt him. True, Chesnutt is an adoptee of Jesus freaks from Zebulon, Ga., who's been paralyzed from the waist down since his late teens after getting drunk and crashing his car into a tree. He's written several raw, heart-wrenching songs on this subject (note to mopey indie rockers: Breaking up with your girlfriend has got nothing on the inability to walk), but throughout his work a salty sense of humor can be found alongside much tenderness, rage, and self-doubt."He's just very crass and has tremendous wit and curiosity," says Picciotto, who met Chesnutt in the late 1980s when Fugazi played Chesnutt's former stomping grounds of Athens, Ga. "He's an incredible character."Chesnutt tapped Picciotto, plus members of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Thee Silver Mt. Zion, to back him on North Star Deserter and this year's At the Cut. Musically, both records teeter among rock, twang, and soul, bearing a tattered punk aesthetic throughout. Wobbly as the music may sound, it's ultimately quite fitting for Chesnutt, whose sense of self is about as unsteady as a drunk on Sunday morning. One minute he's screaming at the sky ("I am not a victim. I'm an atheist!"), the next he's comparing his worthlessness to Styrofoam ("I'm an empty, spent shell and a biohazard.")For At the Cut, Chesnutt sat in his wheelchair, guitar across his lap, and played his bandmates song after song. He then asked them to decide which ones deserved to make the album."The guy is just sitting on this amazing warehouse of material," says Picciotto. "It was like Christmas, hearing all these for the first time. One song, 'Concord Country Jubilee,' he said he wrote when he was a teenager. I was, like, 'How the fuck did a song like that make it through all these years unscathed?'"Though Picciotto says every song was mind-blowing, they ultimately based their decisions on which songs could be built upon with instrumentation. Thus, some songs are less lyrically dense than others. "We Hovered With Short Wings," for example, is a haze of strings and lightly tapped snare that evokes an ambient fog for Chesnutt to whimper his way through. On "Philip Guston," the band creates a Tom Waits–ian blues stomp that evolves into a searing violin-and-guitar jam, as Chesnutt delivers snippets of minimalist verse ("Thoughts of another finger/Diving down into a cellar").Ultimately, the band is at its best when creating a sort of musical stage on which Chesnutt can perform his lyrics rather than just sing them. On "Coward," Chesnutt is wishing he could tear into people like dogs do, while on "Granny" he fondly remembers his Peachtree State childhood.Elsewhere, he reminds us that God can be a real prick ("You were constant when my Mom was cancer sick/You made her beg for it—'Lord Jesus, I am ready'"), and in the album's most defiant track he declares his lack of faith in both God and family.Critics often harp on Chesnutt's gloomy disposition, and At the Cut's material has been called "harrowing" and "bleak." Though the presence of violins can be blamed for that, At the Cut is just Chesnutt being Chesnutt.In other words,

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