My first experience with Vic Chestnutt was in a small club in Austin, Texas. I was standing in the crowd with my girlfriend, when somebody pinched her in the behind. Turning around there was Chestnutt, grinning drunkenly in his wheelchair. “Want a ride?,” he said rolling into the crowd. Like Waits and Bukowski, Chestnutt is a quintessential tragic hero, pure of heart, broken by cynicism and hardly naive. He romanticizes the drunken poet, yet he was paralyzed and confined to a wheelchair after crashing his car while driving drunk. His songs have been lauded and recorded (Sweet Relief II) by the likes of Madonna, REM, Smashing Pumpkins and others.
On Vic Chestnutt’s seventh album, Merriment, he collaborates with Mr. & Mrs. Keneipp, while Jack Logan, Curtiss Pernice and Sam Mixon lend a hand. The music on the album was written and performed largely by the Keneipps, and while the results sound basically like a Vic Chestnutt album, the collaboration finds Chestnutt more playful with his vocal delivery. His rich, melancholy voice stretches and twists around Brecht/Weill-ian lyrics, child-like one moment, introspective the next.
Like Elvis Costello and Mark Eitzel, Chestnutt’s stories can be quirky, literate and ironic. His southern roots lend his lyrics a tone that reminds me of a Tennessee Williams play. Over a creepy, enchanting music of the Keneipp’s, the wonderfully obtuse “Mighty Monkey” tells the story of a train wreck of a circus that Tom Waits would feel at home as ringmaster. “Smell the mighty monkey / The trainer is a junky / And the tightrope walker has one foot in the grave,” croons Chestnutt over rickety piano and whirling organ.
Merriment is an impressive effort by Chestnutt and the Keneipps. The overall mood is downbeat, though not morose. The perfect album for a quiet evening alone with a good book and a bottle of bourbon.