Vic Chesnutt darkens bittersweetness as thoroughly and realistically as any singer-songwriter pretending to have a clue nowadays.
Being a paraplegic since a drunken-driving incident as a teenager surely has something to do with the way he has refused to let cheap sentiment cauterize his sensibilities. But fixating on his wheelchair is ultimately as naïve as ignoring it.
The acid in his attitude makes the stories he etches that much more durable, and just when you’re getting used to the idea that he’s trying to be plainspoken as much as outrageous, he’ll ambush you with mordant humor and unvarnished vulnerability.
It certainly wasn’t pity that compelled REM’s Michael Stipe (a fellow Athens, Ga., resident) to produce his first couple of records, or for Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks to chime in on others. More likely it’s because Chesnutt’s reedy voice and distinctive timing complement his lyrics so effectively. There’s a dispassionate melodrama at play, as if he is stalking the meaning of his songs — it’s really arresting.
Having previously scored with records backed by band members from Lambchop and Godspeed You Black Emperor, he’s touring this time with the Athens outfit Elf Power, perhaps the most accessible, pop-oriented backing (albeit a bit resonant and psychedelic) that he’s ever deployed. They collaborated on Chesnutt’s latest, last year’s “Dark Developments,” a lighter collection than the brilliant 2007 disc, “North Star Constellation.”
The 400 Bar over on the West Bank is the ideal venue for arch, jovial ditties like “The Little F—ker” (the band’s nickname for him after he’d fake injury when they lifted him out of his chair — here’s a recent rendition) and “We Are Mean” (referring to people from the country).
Whether you are laughing, wincing or pensively cogitating, Chesnutt will put a pang in you once or twice within the course of the evening. That kind of power doesn’t come along that often. Below is another clip of Chesnutt and El Power, recorded back in November.
Vic Chesnutt at the 400 Bar, Minneapolis, Saturday (Jan. 31) at 9 p.m. $10 general admission.