Last Night: Vic Chesnutt at the Crocodile

On a night when it seemed all anyone could talk about was the sold-out xx show at Neumos, it shouldn't have surprised me that the Crocodile appeared just over half full for Vic Chesnutt. Usually when this happens, I have conflicting reactions. Part of me relishes the relaxed comfort of being able to watch the show unencumbered by a crush of people; part of me feels bad that the artist is missing out on the larger audience they deserve. In the case of Chesnutt, I don't think it matters to him if there are 5 people in the room or 500, and the only people I feel bad for are those who considered hitting this show and then opted out. It's understandable; it was so frosty last night that I almost bailed myself. I'm so glad my schoolgirl crush on Fugazi's Guy Picciotto (part of Chesnutt's touring band, along with members of Thee Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed You! Black Emperor) motivated me off the couch and out the door, because I was rewarded with one of the most harrowingly beautiful performances I've ever seen.

The last time I saw Chesnutt was a decade ago at the Tractor, when he was touring in support of The Salesman and Bernadette. He's always been a grumpy, unsettling figure onstage, alternately berating the audience for their inevitable nervous chattering, diving into random monologues about his genitalia, and pausing periodically to offer humble thanks.

This is what is paradoxically so disturbing and uplifting about watching him perform: his hands clutch and batter his guitar strings while his fragile, wheelchair-bound frame curls instinctively around the instrument, and the most guttural, raw howls emit from his body. He sounds like a terrified newborn infant or an angry drunk in the final stages of chronic alcoholism, but it's absolutely gorgeous. He's obviously pissed off at the universe (for a variety of understandable reasons), but instead of cowering and succumbing to misery, he's offering it a fearless retort. When he was alternately whispering and shouting "I am a coward!" (from "Coward", the opening track on At the Cut), it was clear that the man is anything but a coward.

Chesnutt has worked with a slew of talented musicians over the years, but I really hope this collaboration with Picciotto and company continues. They obviously admire the hell out of him, hanging on every note and quiver in his voice with the reverence and finely tuned acuity of a jazz combo backing up an iconic bandleader. Their dark orchestration swung gracefully and powerfully between hushed accompaniment and skull-crushing crescendos, a perfect companion to the duality of Chesnutt's material. If I didn't have a radio show to do tonight, I'd probably hop on I-5 right now just to watch it all over again in Portland.

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