Hurts so good

If you believe their bios, singer/songwriters Evan Dando and Vic Chesnutt were born in different years to different mothers on opposite ends of the East Coast.

One tasted stardom in his 20s, in the 1990s, fronting a successful post-punk alt-pop group, only to crash and burn — or burn out — by the end of the decade.

The other crashed — literally — before his career even started, and found himself entering his 20s confined to a wheelchair.

These two performers couldn’t be more different; yet both are currently on the road supporting new albums — Dando’s Baby I’m Bored (Bar/None Records, 2003) and Chesnutt’s Silver Lake (New West Records, 2003), both of which share a laid-back, listening-room sound.

And — perhaps most surprisingly — both performers are now also sharing the same stage.

From Pixie dust to Widespread Panic

Evan Dando isn’t doing interviews. In fact, according to his publicist, the former Lemonheads front man is being “a little difficult.”

Of course, this is the same guy who, when asked a decade ago by an interviewer why he was unable to answer questions, could only scrawl “too much crack” in response. He’s also the guy who freaked out on a mix of heroin and acid in an Australian airport. That was near the end of his infamous affair with drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — and, if you want to count those photos of him in bed with Courtney Love, maybe sex, too.

Privileged Dando was born in Massachusetts in 1967 to a Vogue-model mother and a real-estate-attorney father. He was given his first guitar 10 years later, and learned to play a bunch of Beatles tunes. By ninth grade, he and his buddy Ben Deily were trying to emulate the sounds of Black Flag in Deily’s basement. They added a bass player from Boston’s Commonwealth School, which they all attended, and in 1986 they played their first gig.

“Our second gig ever was at T.T. the Bear’s during ‘New Musik Night,'” Dando recalled in an interview with Magnet (June/July 2003). “The other band on the bill was also playing their second show. They got up and were absolutely f••king amazing, just completely blew my mind, man. It was The Pixies.”

By the following year, The Lemonheads had signed with punk label Taang! Records and went on to record Hate Your Friends, Creator and Lick before group dynamics soured and band personnel started to rotate. Still — maybe thanks only to Boston’s musical climate at the time — success had come fairly easy.

Not so much for Chesnutt — who does do interviews. The singer took time out from his current tour in Norway to answer questions via e-mail, and even offered this apology: “I hope I didn’t missspell [sic] everything as I was pressed for time and typing on a German laptop.”

According to Chesnutt’s self-penned bio, which reads like the outline to a John Irving novel, he was born in Florida in 1964 and subsequently adopted. His family relocated to Georgia, where he was influenced by his grandparents, who played and wrote country music.

At age 9, Chesnutt began playing the trumpet, and at 13, purchased a ukulele from the Sears catalogue. His parents bought him a guitar in 1980 to help him get over the murder of John Lennon. He started playing in bands at 16, met Johnny Cash a year later, and seemed destined for an imminent music career till a car wreck at age 19 left him partially paralyzed — and forever wheelchair-bound.

Next came the oft-mentioned incident of Chesnutt shoplifting the Norton Anthology of American Poets, a turning point of sorts. He later relocated to Athens, Ga., to study English, a move that actually worked out. (The May/June 2003 issue of Oxford American called Chesnutt “an unfettered singer of new American classics,” to which the musician responded, “I very much use literary devices in my lyrics.”)

In Athens (where Chesnutt still lives with his wife, two decades later), he became a solo artist amid the burgeoning bohemian scene that spawned the likes of R.E.M., Pylon and The B-52s. He’s made 11 sprawling, eccentric, sometimes-brilliant albums, including Brute with fellow Athenians Widespread Panic, and he’s toured extensively — Chesnutt’s grave, tremulous, self-mocking delivery getting him paired with such disparate entities as Victoria Williams, Soul Asylum and Giant Sand.

Not having to say he’s sorry

Dando’s crash is maybe understandable when you consider that one of The Lemonheads’ greatest hits was their cover of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson,” a song the band didn’t want released and often refused to play live, despite the insistence of their label and fans.

And then there was the obscene amount of drugs, even by industry standards. After hitting bottom in Australia, Dando began the long climb back up — including several years of playing low-key acoustic shows — aided in part by his marriage. Dando followed his dad’s example and wed a model, Elizabeth Moses, who graces the cover of Baby I’m Bored.

About the new album, an acoustic Americana project, Dando claimed, in a March 2003 interview with Independent magazine: “I’m starting to find my voice. Of all the albums I’ve made, I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

It helps to know that, in the early ’90s, Dando’s interests veered with the times, from pure alterna-pop to country-laced alterna-pop. The vestige of twang remains on the new disc, in one of its best moments, “It Looks Like You.” Among the album’s few upbeat songs, it’s also one of the more fully realized, due to its focus on composition over Dando’s internal musings.

While other songs offer insights into Dando’s struggles, the tone is self-obsessed, almost self-pitying. Only the singer’s wry humor saves him — in “The Same Thing You Thought Hard About Is the Same Part I Can Live Without,” he reveals: “I can’t believe how far I slid/ But secretly I’m glad I did/ … A broken heart and two black eyes/ But you should see the other guy.”

In “All My Life,” he confesses, “All my life/ I thought I needed all the things/ I didn’t need at all.” Still, Dando isn’t exactly scaling the soapbox of the repentant ex-junkie. In the Independent interview, he states, “I think bands should take as many drugs as possible when they’re young … the idea of rock ‘n’ roll bands without drugs — well, I just don’t buy it.”

Later, though, he tempers his theory with regret: “Some people say they make better music when they’re miserable and alone and taking drugs all the time, but I tried that already. It’s horrible.”

Finally, he concedes, “I care so much more about music these days, so much more than when I was a crack addict. … Now that I’ve stopped drinking and doing hard drugs, I feel like I have a responsibility to my audience.”

The crying game

Though Oxford American points out that “where Bruce Springsteen was born to run, Vic Chesnutt was born to curl up in a ball and cry,” Silver Lake is far from a slit-your-wrists listening experience. Songs like the expansive “Zippy Morocco” and the tribute “Band Camp” are way closer to anthems than dirges.

“I am much intrigued by tribal chanting and like to think of choruses as something to chant. But on Silver Lake, the band pushed everything into a sort of sustained climax,” Chesnutt explains from Norway. “‘Sultan So Mighty’ and ‘Girls Say’ are the only songs that followed closely to my demos. Everything else was very much arranged by a close collaboration between myself, the band and the producer, Mark Howard.”

Silver Lake references much of middle Georgia, both in lyric and mood.

“I wrote ‘Wren’s Nest’ not as a commentary on environmental destruction, but as a meditation on mythical places, situations and desires of my formative teenage years growing up in rural Georgia,” Chesnutt says via e-mail. “Sense of place is important to my writing because the setting often offers the essential images of the story.”

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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