Notes from the edge

Live shows by popular rock musicians often provide little more than a replay of the album — albeit with a little good-natured chatter tossed in for variety. But an upcoming show at The Grey Eagle, featuring the alternative-acoustic sounds of Kristin Hersh and Vic Chesnutt, promises something much greater — though it’s unclear exactly what.

The tour’s been titled In Their Own Worlds, and anyone who’s heard either Hersh (late of the influential late-’80s/early-’90s alternative-rock band Throwing Muses) or Chesnutt will savor the pun. Both these highly gifted guitarists and singer/songwriters are known not only for their rare, insightful lyrics, but also for their edgy vocals and accessible-yet-”out there” musical themes, which temper personal adversity with ironic humor.

After the Athens, Ga.-based Chesnutt was partly paralyzed in a car accident at age 18 and become reliant on a wheelchair, his parents advised him to begin attending church. Instead, the young musician headed straight for Nashville.

“I didn’t start reading until after the accident,” recalls Chesnutt, who, inspired by poetry, began to nurture his own gritty lullabies (call his vocal style a cross between Tom Waits and Cat Stevens). After Chesnutt returned to his home state, fellow Athens resident Michael Stipe of R.E.M. coaxed him into a recording studio, eager to immortalize Chesnutt’s irresistibly strange musings, like those heard on “Big Huge Valley,” from 1992’s classic West of Rome (Texas Hotel): “Well the big huge valley is a ribbon of light/the aquaducts are snakes tonight/the stars are homesteaders, staking claims/my head is hopping with historical names/transfer trucks are buffaloes chewing up this desert road/ yes and I am nothing especially/ just an uptight man on a useless journey.”

Since then, Chesnutt has released a series of critically acclaimed recordings, played a bit part in Billy Bob Thornton’s astonishing drama Slingblade, and is the subject of a documentary, Speed Racer. His celebrity increased in 1996 with the release of a CD to benefit musicians facing medical and financial hardships, titled Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation — The Songs of Vic Chesnutt (Sony/Columbia, 1996), which featured covers of his songs by Hersh, Madonna, Smashing Pumpkins and Hootie and the Blowfish, among many others.

To see Chesnutt or Hersh alone would be an undeniable treat — together, magic seems inevitable.

Hersh has spent the past 15 years on the road, both solo and as the driving force behind the Muses. To be sure, her music lost some residual angst after she gave birth to three children — but it has retained its intensity, nonetheless.

“This is a tiny piano thing I did with my son Dylan sitting on the piano bench with me,” she told one interviewer about the song “Outro,” from her recently released album Sky Motel (4AD, 1999). “He’s 13 now, and I lost custody of him years ago. He was staying with us for a month at the studio in New Orleans. At this time he was about to leave, and we were sitting there, emotionally raw. Every time he looked at his baby brothers he’d start crying, and every time I looked at him I’d start crying. We sat there with headphones on, just messing around, with me trying to do an overdub for another song.”

After a long day of travel with her family on the eve of her current tour with Chesnutt, Hersh sounded tired but excited in a recent phone interview:

“We toured together in Europe for my first solo tour, and [Chesnutt] just made it fun,” Hersh remembers fondly. “I was not looking forward to playing live without my band, and he made it worthwhile. He also made such a big impression live that it was good for me to watch. … I think Vic is the only songwriter that I’m really jealous of … he taught me the lesson that an audience is not there to pay dollars for decibels, it’s there to hear songs.”

This time around, says Hersh, “We just trade off songs and talk, and sometimes we play on each other’s songs, sometimes not. We’re both pretty easygoing.”

Despite her casual attitude, Hersh has described her songwriting style as a potentially dangerous and unpleasant undertaking, and one over which she’s had little control.

“I think that, many years ago, I was afraid of the songs — I was afraid of what they would make me say … and afraid if I didn’t write them I’d get sick,” the singer admits. “They just seemed huge and magic and weird, and I wasn’t really into that. … I had always wanted to be a scientist and measure things. I can’t even read fiction, because it sounds like someone’s lying to me. And so the songs really took me by surprise.

“I don’t understand it,” she adds wonderingly. “I used to just hear them, as if someone were playing a record in the next room that no one else heard, and it would get louder and louder until I wrote the song, and if I didn’t write the song, I would have a seizure: It was that violent. And that’s why I hated the songs so much, because they would do that to me. … I didn’t want to have anything to do with them, except that they were big and beautiful, you know, smarter and prettier than me. So I didn’t like the writing process. And now I do. I don’t fight it, and so they don’t fight me as much, and there’s less angst involved — more of just a scrim to see the world through than a battle.”

And still the metaphors play on: “The recording is like taking a song and chopping its limbs off and sewing them back on and teaching it to walk,” she ventures. “And playing live is just like sprinting. But playing live is about 5 percent of what touring is, and the rest is just traveling and hotels, and it gets old after — I don’t know — about 15 years. You just go on the coffee-and-beer diet, and you become very focused — kind of like an old person.”

As Hersh mused on the hazards of the road — noting how it’s that much harder to do a tour when family issues loom — one of her children could be heard in the background, plucking a toy guitar. The moment echoed her earlier comments about “Faith,” a track on Sky Motel about the importance, for her, of living a full life: “For me, hope is a big deal. … I think people lend too much to the afterlife, they almost forget about this one. But I prefer the idea that this is our big moment, and then we go to sleep. I mean, jeez, wouldn’t it be a bitch to wake up on the other side? Like, what? There’s more?

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