Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Mighty Vic Chesnutt at the Doug Fir

It's hard to imagine a better pairing of artist and venue than Vic Chesnutt and the Doug Fir...

First up were Portland's own Hush Records (I knew that was Podington Bear - aka Chad Crouch - I spotted at the merch booth; my friend Jenni and I had dinner with the guy and his wife once at clarklewis... very cool cat) recording artists Run On Sentence:

Run On Sentence is the project of Dustin Hamman. Dustin's a very dynamic singer, and has worked with a number of musicians in the Portland scene, most notably Nick Jaina's band. Last night he surrounded himself with the bassist you see in the photo, a drummer and two trumpeters, top-notch players, the all of them. The trumpeters also sang back up, and at one point one of them broke out a nifty little device that looked like a laptop, but once opened, turned into a mini-xylophone! Anybody know where I can get my hands on one of these? Anyway, Run On Sentence's set was an odd mixed bag. Rootsy, folksy, a little bit old-timey, they evoked artists as varied as Leon Redbone, the Violent Femmes and Neutral Milk Hotel. Sound like a weird description? Well, they're a weird band! But in a good way. The Neutral Milk Hotel comparison, incidentally, has some significance here; Neutral Milk Hotel were part of the Elephant Six collective, as were the next band up, Elf Power:

Elf Power were astounding. My only complaint with this band is that singer Andrew Rieger's voice is just a little too thin to stand up to his own guitar work, as well as the firepower around him. It's a minor complaint, though. Elf Power have moved beyond their psych-pop roots, and were quite a bit noisier last night than their name would suggest. It should also be said that they've got the best rhythm section I've seen in years. Their bassist, in particular, was just crazy good. In addition to playing their own music, Elf Power are serving as Vic Chesnutt's backing band on this tour.

So yes, on to Vic: The last time I saw Vic Chesnutt was about ten years ago, when he was opening for Wilco on their Summerteeth tour, in a relatively large auditorium in Grand Rapids, MI filled with people who clearly did not understand what they were seeing. While I was in awe, much of the rest of the crowd actually booed Vic that night, believe it or not. Now if you're not familiar with Vic Chesnutt, one thing you need to know is that he was in a horrible car accident back in 1983, in which his neck was broken and he was rendered a paraplegic. He gets around in a wheelchair, and has basically no use of his right hand, and not much use of his left hand either. He strums with a pick strapped to his right thumb, and can only barely form chords. So from a technical standpoint, Eddie Van Halen he's not. But as a songwriter, he's unbelievable. Chesnutt's writing is characterized by his ability to build narrative around metaphor, spinning seemingly innocuous pairings of words like "Independence Day" or "Sewing Machine" into tales of loss and regret so raw and honest, so powerful and enigmatic, that they won't just make you cry, they'll make your dog cry. Vic's songs would do George Jones proud. Fortunately, in a live setting he tempers this with self-effacing humor. He prefaced the song "Little Fucker" by mentioning that "it's a song about me."

Vic and Elf Power made their way through a set of songs from their recent collaborative album "Dark Developments" (Vic has a long history of collaboration, having worked over the years with REM, Victoria Williams, Widespread Panic and Lambchop), then he treated us to a bit of his solo work, including "Isadora Duncan" and the aforementioned "Independence Day" (unfortunately, no "Sewing Machine" despite my repeated shouts for it). This was a fantastic show. I hope it won't be ten years before I see him again...

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