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Vic Chesnutt: Tiny Desk Concert

June 5, 2008 Athens, Ga., songwriter Vic Chesnutt is on tour in support of his latest album, North Star Deserter. In Washington, D.C., for a concert at the Black Cat, he stopped by NPR to perform live at All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen's desk. Chesnutt played five songs, including two entirely new ones.

I didn't think much of Vic Chesnutt when I first heard his music more than 15 years ago. I was just out of college and living in Athens, Ga. Chesnutt lived there, too, and was making occasional appearances at some of the local clubs. He was often drunk and sometimes belligerent. I walked out of at least one performance.

A friend of mine remained loyal. She caught most of his shows and had the two albums he'd released at that point: 1990's Little and 1991's West of Rome. Though I hadn't noticed at the time, both were filled with the anguish of someone struggling with a lot of (now obvious) inner demons. He suffered from bouts of depression and anxiety. There was the drinking problem. He readily admitted to fairly heavy drug use. I can only speculate that it was at least partially a form of self-medicating, since a horrible car accident years earlier had left him paralyzed from the waist down.

All of this probably made it easy to dismiss Vic Chesnutt's music. He was a challenging guy, and his unpolished, idiosyncratic songs weren't easily digested.

Everything changed for me one rainy autumn night while attending a small party at my friend's house. She put on West of Rome and let it play quietly in the background while everyone chatted in the kitchen. Maybe I was in a less festive mood, but before long, I found myself sitting alone in front of the stereo, absolutely transfixed by Chesnutt's voice as he began one of his heartwrenching stories: "West of Rome / just east of the border / in a static-y Ramada Inn / polishing his boots and pummeling his liver / steeped in dark isolation." I hung on every word.

The music of Vic Chesnutt is deeply intimate and introspective. It requires a little solitude to really take it in. For me, I suddenly saw and felt both the joy and sadness of his world. His music was, and still is, like life itself: crude and elegant, beautiful and gruesome. Chesnutt is a remarkably gifted lyricist: The strength of his songs lies in his Southern-flavored narratives, which capture more in a handful of carefully chosen words than many novels.

So I can't recall when I first heard Vic Chesnutt, but I definitely remember when I first listened. After 15 years, he's sobered up and put out a dozen albums — some better than others, but all of them memorable and moving.

Though he's revered by better-known artists (both Madonna and The Smashing Pumpkins have covered his work), and he has a loyal fan base, Chesnutt doesn't have much of a machine to promote his music. He's posted his personal email address online for anyone to see. That's how I contacted him when I saw that he'd be in D.C. for a show to promote his latest album, North Star Deserter. He wrote back right away to say he'd be happy to give us a Tiny Desk Concert. We couldn't be more thrilled to have him.

Set List

  • "When The Bottom Fell Out"
  • "Very Friendly Lighthouses"
  • "Panic Pure'"
  • "We Were Strolling Hand in Hand"
  • "Glossolalia"

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