Prolific, profound, and ever full of potty-mouthed piss-and-vinegar - Vic Chesnutt is Prometheus in a wheelchair with a battered guitar – a freak-folk trailblazer, spilling his heart and soul and spleen into the microphone, with a sly drawl, dripping humid, Southern gothic imagery in calamitous, sometimes comic songs worthy of a Greek tragedy.
Vic’s new CD (and 12th album to date), Ghetto Bells, matches the poetic power of his words with some of the most elegantly simpatico backing he’s ever been blessed with – including jazz icon Bill Frisell on guitars; legendary writer, arranger and multi-instrumentalist Van Dyke Parks on piano, accordion and organ; Don Heffington of Lone Justice and the Jayhawks on drums and percussion; classically trained session-man Dominic Genova on double bass; sweetheart/sidekick/sounding board Tina Chesnutt on electric bass; and newcomer-singer-songwriter Liz Durrett on exquisite backing vocals.
For some 15 years, producer John Chelew (John Hiatt, Richard Thompson, Blind Boys of Alabama) had been dreaming of pairing Chesnutt with Heffington – ever since he saw the two playing together at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in LA, after Vic’s debut album, Little, was released in 1990. And in their wildest reveries, Chelew and Chesnutt had always envisioned bringing the audacious talents of Parks into the mix. That dream finally came true in 2004, as Chelew, Chesnutt and Parks got together for a week of sessions at Heffington’s L.A. guest house/studio. Adding Frisell completed the layered, vividly moody sonic mélange that Chelew has described a very “nighttime” recording.
The moods and textures of the songs sway from the startling opener "Virginia" with a string arrangement (courtesy of Van Dyke) evoking a seedy, rainy street in some Tennessee Williams play to the omnipotent Greek Chorus of "What Do You Mean;" from the wanton "To Be With You" to the simple short story of "Ignorant People;" from the almost obscenely beautiful, southern Gothic epic "Forthright" to the closing, ghostly falsetto of "Gnats."
“It just seemed like this project had to happen,” says Vic, “but I still can’t believe I got Bill Frisell and Van Dyke Parks to play on my record. It’s so crazy – the two of them together. I was completely thrilled. My rudimentary structure, which is rooted in folk and major and minor chords, is so simple. That’s why I craved working with these musicians – because of the harmonic sophistication that they brought to it. Bill and Van Dyke really inspired me and took my imagination flying.” One can only assume they inspired Vic's singing as well for it is unquestionably the finest of his recorded career.
Some comments from Vic about the players:
- Bill Frisell: Bill is kind of like a magnet. He has this definite artistic force field around him. And the notes that he plays are just mesmerizing. It’s crazy how much sound comes out of his guitar.
- Van Dyke Parks: Having Van Dyke in the sessions really was a dream come true. His lyrics have been a huge inspiration to me over the years. Him being there was like recording with Mark Twain, Erik Satie, Timothy Leary and Booker T.!
- Liz Durrett: I knew I wanted to get her to sing on this record before she gets too famous.
- Don Heffington: He’s very musical, he’s almost like a piano player or something.
- Dominic Genova: He was the Astral Weeks conjuror.
- Tina Chesnutt: Her bass playing is like a big, velvet hammer.
- David Vaught (engineer): Everything in playback sounded like cream. He and Don were like Abbott & Costello.
- John Chelew: John was one of my earliest and best champions. I can't say enough about his influence on this album. I trusted him to pick all the songs, I let him name the record, he even suggested the cover idea.
Vic was born in 1964 in Jacksonville, FL and was raised in Zebulon, GA. He loved music from an early age and, in fact, started writing songs when he was only five years old. He played trumpet in a high school cover band. As he got older and began buying records, his first favorites were Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and The Beatles. After a car accident in 1983 that left him partially paralyzed and the recuperation period that followed, Vic came to "a whole new understanding of music.” The first results were what he describes as “vacuous pop songs” But when he discovered a book called The Norton Anthology Of Modern Poetry (“its footnotes were eureka!”) Vic had, for the first time, what he describes as that “art feeling.” It was then that his songs began to take on adult form. In the middle 80s, Vic moved to Athens, GA to study English. He formed a group called The La Di Das and began playing the clubs around town. In 1988 he quit the band and started playing solo shows, including a summer-long residency at The 40 Watt. It was then that Michael Stipe saw Vic, repeatedly, and was moved to invite him into a recording studio. They recorded the songs that became his debut album, Little and Vic’s career effectively began. Vic has made 10 albums to date as well as 2 albums in collaboration with Widespread Panic under the name ‘Brute.’ He was the subject of a documentary in 1992 entitled “Speed Racer” directed by noted indie filmmaker Peter Sillen. In 1995 he had bit part in Billy Bob Thornton’s film Slingblade. In 1996, Columbia Records put together Sweet Relief II: Gravity Of The Situation - The Songs of Vic Chesnutt, a benefit album to assist musicians with medical and financial hardship. It featured Vic’s songs covered by the likes of Madonna, Smashing Pumpkins, Soul Asylum, Garbage & R.E.M. In 2000, The Georgia House Of Representatives passed a resolution, honoring Vic for his “off-beat musical genius and other purposes.” In 2001 he wrote and performed the music for “Josiah Meigs and Me,” a puppet play done at St. Anne’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. In January of 2004, Vic participated in the Randy Newman Tribute at UCLA’s Royce Hall along with Victoria Williams, Bill Frisell, Rip Torn and many others. In June of this year, he was invited to share the bill with Rickie Lee Jones for two concerts at the prestigious Century Of Song Festival in Essen, Germany. Over the last few years he has also been speaking on songwriting and creative writing at Berklee School Of Music, Brown University and The University Of Georgia. Vic continues to tour extensively all over the world and has shared stages with the likes of R.E.M., Laura Nyro, Patti Smith, Lou Reed, John Cale, Mo Tucker, The Jayhawks, Allen Toussaint, P.J. Harvey, Wilco, Billy Swan, Giant Sand, Calexico and The Sadies.