Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Sound engineering by Mike Gentry
We booked the legendary Vic Chesnutt in an eatery that, on a normal night, operates as a very family-oriented establishment, along with a slightly older crowd of pasta and pizza pie diners. There will be old acquaintances getting together for their once a month dinner outing, maybe over wine (and you'll see them sitting near the windows in their buttoned up, going out clothes), and there will be the AAU basketball teams stopping in for celebratory slices following a game. And this is the place where we booked the sometimes petulant in language Mr. Chesnutt to play a show. Luckily, for the sensitive ears of the old and the restless, the young and the squeamish, this was Super Bowl Sunday - when the afternoon session and night show took place -- and the pizza parlor was dead as a morgue, other than those who came specifically to see Chesnutt perform his raw to the bone folk rock with Elf Power accompanying him for the majority of the set. They may have also been there to hear how many times Chesnutt would say the word motherfucker - one of his favorites of all-time. It was a few, but all appropriately utilized, one could make an argument. It was a gamble bringing him here and bending a microphone down to a few inches from his mouth as he sat in his wheelchair and launched into his poisoned tales of suffering and disgruntled observations. The curse words that he loves are the most colorful and inciting and he says them with a snap in his tongue, with a pinch of the eyes and with measured aim, even when they are shot from the hip as filler, as the crutch words that are the first to the mind. Chesnutt has spent the majority of his life trapped in a wheelchair, ever since he was involved in an automobile accident when he was an 18-year-old, and his songs are crushing when listened to closely with that understanding in mind. He's a man who has seemed to have moved well beyond the petty sort of resentment and pity that can come when your legs are taken away from you when you're just a high school senior, but he's rolled it into an awkward complacency that's a continuing saga that he's incapable of escaping. He's now a 44-year-old man, a frail yet spunky middle-aged man who spouts off about all of the things that ruffle his feathers, sneaking in very personal lines about his life, the one that he was forced to live thanks to a traumatic night behind the wheel in 1982. It seems that there were two choices that Chesnutt had to make about his predicament and one was to either let it destroy him and the other was to destroy it or the presence of it through bitter sarcasm and touching (yes, touching) cynicism. It feels in his lyrics as if so much has been taken away from him or withheld, that it is too tragic to bear. He gets up from dreaming every morning, only to find that the waiting day is ready and willing to shit on him again as the body he took under the covers is still his and he's got to once again dink around with it, once again make peace with its shortcomings. He sings about his love of the alcoholic drink and he sings about all of the overlooking that he's known from females. He's a pillar for the unfair practices of acknowledgement and love. "Independence Day," an older song from his 1990 album "Little," that should make everyone cry a little, depending on how one chooses to interpret the words. It's easy to hear spite and remorse when Chesnutt sings, "Independence Day, I never knew it would be so symbolic," and then flash to an image of him smoking cigarettes sadly in his small, rolling seat. He's an expert craftsman with his language and he prods emotions with his rasp and his characteristic calm-to-giddiness. He's a silly man, as can be heard here in his counts to start songs, and it might just be a defense mechanism, but he's got a lot of good ones - the best of which are a voice and a mind sharpened so as the hurt that he harbors can come out so refined. But even then, there are always good moments to just wail a hearty motherfucker to rattle the ground a bit.