Cowboy Junkies wrestle with Demons
My only opportunity to see the late Vic Chesnutt in person was when the singer opened a show for the Cowboy Junkies in Ottawa some time in the early 90s. I recall that the venue, a repurposed vaudeville house, provided no easy wheelchair access to the stage, and Chesnutt — who was left partially paralyzed in a 1983 car crash — had to be lifted onto the stage by a couple of roadies.
Once the delicate operation was completed according to Chesnutt’s audibly acerbic instruction to his helpers, he wheeled himself to centre stage and looked out at the audience, which had descended into a curious or confused silence. Chesnutt’s face betrayed an unspoken dare for anyone in the room to feel sorry for him like a prizefighter staring down his opponent.
Unlike many artists, Chesnutt did not have the luxury of singing about pain and struggle as an exclusively existential dilemma. The reality of his condition and the raw terms he used to convey that in his art is perhaps why I (and presumably others) never fully warmed to his work even as I might have admired his courage and honesty.
There is a strange kind of alchemy, then, in the Cowboy Junkies’ new CD, Demons. Perhaps the act of interpreting 11 songs by their friend, who died on Christmas day, 2009, allows the listener to approach the subject with enough distance to fully appreciate the conviction and humanity in Chesnutt’s work.
“Flirted With You All My Life” is one of the rawest contemplations of death, and particularly suicide, you could hope (or fear) to hear. Youtube has a video of Chesnutt performing the song just over a month before his passing at Chicago’s Lincoln Hall, and at about the five minute mark, Chesnutt’s face betrays a sense of … exhaustion, dismay, anxiety that is palpable, an embodiment of the song’s pain, but belies the song’s defiant refrain “I’m not ready.” He looks like he’s ready.
The Cowboy Junkies’ take converts the song into a defiant anthem. That’s an unlikely kind of transubstantiation of such a bleak, personal song. But perhaps it’s the group’s personal relationship with the singer and his songs, combined with the frisson between Chesnutt’s southern gothic fatalism and the Junkies’ northern mixture of empathy and detachment that makes it such a powerful interpretation.
“Wrong Piano” gets a similarly defiant treatment, conveying Chesnutt’s wry words and pugnacious melody as a raging against the dying light, amply demonstrated live on Jimmy Fallon’s show.
Demons is the second volume in the Junkies’ ongoing Nomads subscription series and it was preceded by the challenging, experimental Remnin Park and will be followed by two further volumes — Sing In My Meadow and The Wilderness. The group has lately been working on Meadow and posted material in progress, songs they reference with Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Captain Beefheart’s Mirror Man and Neil Young circa Tonight’s The Night.