Like a lot of people, Luke Redfield couldn't get Vic Chesnutt off his mind on the day after Christmas in 2009. Unlike most people, though, the Minnesota songwriter put his thoughts to good use.
"I had the idea right away, and it just seemed like the right thing to do," Redfield said of putting together a tribute album to the late, cult-revered Georgia song man, who committed suicide that Christmas Day.
Ideas are one thing. Pulling them off is what counts. The young Duluth-reared songwriter managed to get a cross-section of Twin Cities musicmakers to come together and make "Minnesota Remembers Vic Chesnutt," a feat that could only happen in a music scene that's both community-oriented and song-driven.
Granted, charity albums pop up all the time, like the "Minnesota Beatle Project," which will be revived in a third installment next month. Chesnutt, however, was clearly no Beatles. He was obscure professionally and difficult lyrically. Redfield somehow found 17 acts willing to take the time to record Vic's challenging songs without much notice, and get a lot of other local music professionals to pitch in.
The first album ever issued by local nonprofit Rock the Cause, the tribute features Dan Wilson, Haley Bonar, Trampled by Turtles' Dave Simonett, Charlie Parr, Ben Weaver, Andrew Broder, JoAnna James, Alpha Consumer, Redfield and a half-dozen more.
Profits will go toward two noble causes: Lifeworks, serving people with disabilities (Chesnutt was left wheelchair-bound by a car accident at age 18), and the musicians health-care organization Sweet Relief, which put out a Chesnutt tribute album in 1996 featuring Soul Asylum, R.E.M., Smashing Pumpkins and even Madonna.
It was R.E.M.'s Michael Stipe who "discovered" Chesnutt in the late '80s. Soul Asylum's members were among the Minnesota music scenesters who befriended him, along with Bob Mould (who frequently had Vic open his acoustic tours), the Golden Smog crew (who backed him at South by Southwest in 1996) and Replacements manager Peter Jesperson (who went on to issue his albums at New West Records). So there always seemed to be a Twin Cities soft spot for the craggy-voiced, prickly songwriter -- right up to his final local show just a month before his death.
Only one of the performers on "Minnesota Remembers" had a personal connection to Chesnutt. Ben Weaver met him a few years ago at a symposium and they later shared concert bills in Europe. Weaver told Chesnutt how their mutual friend Jesperson talked up Vic's "Mr. Reilly" as the greatest song ever written. When he got home, Weaver found a copy of Chesnutt's debut album in the mail -- featuring "Mr. Reilly" -- sent by the man himself.
"That's the only autographed CD I own," said Weaver, who connected with this tribute in a similarly serendipitous way: He happened to stop by Devil's Workshop Studio on one of the days that owner Chad Weis had donated studio time for the recordings.
"I went home that night, learned the song and came in the next day and did it," recalled Weaver, who had an easy choice of which song to cover ("Mr. Reilly"). "It's still pretty surreal how it happened."
Even beyond Weaver's track, the tribute album maintains a personal touch, whether it's Wilson covering "Soft Picasso" for the sake of the charities (the Semisonic frontman has a special-needs daughter) or troubadouristic, storytelling songwriters like Simonett, Parr and Redfield trying to channel one of the greats.
Simonett kicks off the disc with probably Chesnutt's best-known song, "Gravity of the Situation." The album wraps with what has become his most definitive track, "Flirted With You All My Life," seemingly written about a girl but actually a nod to suicide. Sung here by Janey Winterbauer and Ryan Paul, the lyrics include, "I flirted with you all my life, even kissed you once or twice / And to this day, I swear it was nice / But clearly I was not ready."
With his health deteriorating and medical bills mounting, Chesnutt overdosed on muscle relaxants at age 45. Other tributes since then include an album of covers by the Cowboy Junkies ("Demons") and a song on Lucinda Williams' latest record ("Seeing Black").
"He was such an original songwriter, very raw and unedited," summed up Redfield, who moved to Portland, Ore., last month. "No two songs were alike, and even no two versions of one song were alike. I think and hope people will be picking through his songs for years to come."
Rock the Cause is hosting a fundraiser Saturday at the Grain Belt Bottling House in northeast Minneapolis with many of the album's participants (Weaver, Alpha Consumer, Murzik, Wendy Lewis, Eliza Blue) plus several players who are also fans: Adam Levy, Kevin Bowe, Farewell Milwaukee, Nikki & the Ruemates and Communist Daughter's Johnny Solomon and Molly Moore.
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