Cowboy Junkies

Vic Chesnutt

Riviera, April 25

Aristotle proposed that the purpose of tragedy is to create a catharsis, a purging of pity and fear in which the soul is “calmed and restored as though it had gone through a medical treatment.”

The Cowboy Junkies mistake mellow mood music for tragedy, their mind-numbing washes of darkness offering no drama or risk. Vic Chesnutt, on the other hand, knows his ancient Greek. His songs crack your heart like a sledgehammer on crystal, leaving you spent and calm–a witness to something amazing.

Chesnutt doesn’t make a big splash onstage. Pale and thin in baggy clothes, he’s confined to a wheelchair and barely able to hold his guitar. He has to superglue a pick to a glove on his paralyzed right hand in order to strum some fragile chords, and even then his hand cramps up every few songs. But Chesnutt’s voice is a thousand years old, full of Spanish moss, humming insects, and sticky southern nights. His lyrics are explosions of emotional honesty and vivid imagery, heartbreaking and funny at the same time. On his first album, Little, he sings, “Once I took my single shotgun and…hid in a neighbor’s pasture….A bunch of doves flew by / And landed in a huddle on a power line / I aimed with an eagle’s eye / And fired / But it was two pigeons that fell like leaf bags into the weeds / Well they sure looked like doves to me.”

Most people either worship Chesnutt or haven’t heard of him. This may change when Sweet Relief II appears in stores this year with the likes of Madonna, Hootie, and Smashing Pumpkins covering Chesnutt songs. The Cowboy Junkies, who share record producer John Keane with Chesnutt, gave him an opening slot at their Riviera show, but his name didn’t appear on the marquee, his merchandise wasn’t for sale at the Junkies’ T-shirt stand, and judging by the way the crowd barely looked up when he wheeled onstage, most people hadn’t a clue who he was.

Chesnutt was born to a God-fearing family in Georgia 31 years ago. At 13, he decided he was an atheist and hid in his parents’ closet with a pistol to his ear. Though he never pulled the trigger, at age 18 he broke his neck driving drunk. In “Supernatural” he sings about his stay in the hospital: “Out of body experience / I flew around a little room once / On intravenous Demerol / But it weren’t supernatural.” When he got out of the hospital, Chesnutt parked his wheelchair in downtown Athens with a sign that said “No god exists.”

Athens celebrity Michael Stipe gave Chesnutt his big break in 1988. Stipe cornered him after a show and within weeks produced Little. Chesnutt has released three more albums since then, but not one of the record stores I called in Chicago had his albums in stock.

All alone on the Riviera’s immense stage, trying to coax Cowboy Junkies fans to pay him mind, Chesnutt seemed terrified. Reaching down to grab a soda between songs, he spilled it and ended up with his pants wet.

But gradually, song by song, I watched people stop in mid-sentence, turning their heads to the stage, caught by an exquisite turn of phrase, a frightening quiver in Chesnutt’s raspy voice.

He wound down with one of his most beautifully frightening songs, “Free of Hope.” “Bricks are dirty / Lakes are dead,” Chesnutt sang. “The family dog is mad / Baby brother’s science beakers are all broken….But I’m free of hope / Free of a past / Thank you God of Nothing / I’m free at last.”

After Chesnutt the Cowboy Junkies seemed as contrived as one of those car commercials in which a beautiful woman tells about how an air bag saved her life. The stage was covered in white sheets. The musicians sat on faux-antique chairs next to a vase of flowers. Singer Margo Timmins wore a middle-management sweater/skirt ensemble. The whole effect was like a Crate & Barrel store window–tres VH-1.

The musical mix of the Cowboy Junkies–softly fuzzed guitar blended with sweet cello and brush-stroked drums–is a refreshing change from the usual testosterone assault. But while a band like Lambchop creates creepy, sad music with similar ingredients, the Cowboy Junkies fall flat–more sleepwalkers than junkies. The problem is their main presence–Timmins’s syrupy voice.

Timmins graduated from the Natalie Merchant school of stage presence: she holds the mike stand between two limp hands, politely swivels her hips, shakes her head every fourth beat. Though her voice is perfect and full, it’s devoid of feeling, as if English isn’t a language she’s familiar with. Whether the lyrics are funny, sad, cryptic, or angry, they all ooze out in a liquidy vibrato as numbing as a New Age relaxation tape. Her microphone is so full of reverb you can barely make out the words even when she talks between songs. The lights change from green to red to blue. Timmins sits for one song and gets up for the next, trying to make something happen. Nothing ever does. Lyrics like “A lonely sinking feeling” or “Love you till I’m dead” roll off her tongue like balls of white paste.

Attempts at personality between songs only made matters worse. About their hit “Misguided Angel” she said: “This next song goes out to anyone who’s ever gone out on a date.” About another tune: “This one is about believing in your relationship.” I felt like I was at an Oprah taping. When the Junkies attempted Bruce Springsteen’s terrifying “State Trooper” and it came out as just another glob of corn syrup, I left to go to the bathroom. On the staircase heading out a sign read, “Due to our commitment to safe service we serve our beverages in sanitary disposable cups.” That sums up the Cowboy Junkies perfectly.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnell.