Like a lot of Twin Cities rock fans, my first exposure to Vic Chesnutt was seeing him open for Bob Mould on a few of Bob's solo acoustic tours in the late-'80s and early-'90s. In fact, one of those gigs I saw with Bob was at the Cannibal Club in Austin, Texas, the night the Twins won the Series in '91, a great night all-around.
Those first few times, I have to admit it: Vic scared me. I was too young and too vanilla to get the ocean-deep context and river-rapid outpouring of symbolism and poetry in his songs. So all Vic was to me back then was a guy in a battered physical state with a thick, backwoods Georgia drawl and a surly demeanor. He was damn intimidating.
Of course, as I grew up, and as Vic's albums got better and better (or more sonically accessible, I should say), it became clear he was one of the most tender and raw songwriters of our era. Underneath that gruff exterior was a poet and storyteller of the first degree, and like many of the best songwriters (Dylan, Willie, Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen), his unique singing voice took some getting used to but ultimately was a thing of beauty. And while he put out a lot of terrific albums -- "Is the Actor Happy?," "Silver Lake" and last year's "North Star Deserter" are among his best -- they were no match for seeing Vic live. Those onstage qualities that at first made me uncomfortable were really an integral part of the music, it turned out.
Vic only just played the Cedar Cultural Center last month, and it was quite a fascinating show. He had a full band with him that included Fugazi's Guy Picciotto and members of Montreal's Silver Mt. Zion/Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who backed Chesnutt up on "Deserter" and this year's mortality-pondering album "At the Cut." Their set was mostly culled from those two albums and featured an intoxicating wall of sound -- sort of a muddy and fragile wall, with three guitars, cello and organ parts that would suddenly build up in volume and then just as quickly crumble down into Vic's softer solo sound.
Vic himself seemed to be in good spirits at the Cedar, visibly thrilled to be touring with such a fine ensemble. He did seem to be a little extra fragile health-wise, and he even joked about flying into town on a plane full of passengers in surgical masks afraid of the flu. Without a mask, he joked that his only defense to the virus was to give himself a pep talk: "Come on little white blood cells, kick their ass!" he quipped. He had the audience laughing several other times in the show, too.
Details are still sketchy (Rolling Stone's site doesn't even have anything on it yet), but it has been confirmed that Vic died yesterday (Christmas Day) after being in a coma, possibly from a suicide. The L.A. Times has a quote from Chesnutt complaining about his mounting medical bills. It goes without stating a guy like this -- who contributed to society way more than he took from it -- deserves decent health care, but let's not cheapen his memory with political talk. R.I.P., Vic.