Archive for September, 2010

Demons, volume 2 – an Introduction

Saturday, September 25th, 2010

Our brief journey with Vic began in the mid-1990’s when we stumbled upon his album, West Of Rome. We had just begun work on the collection of songs that would become Lay It Down and we decided to throw the title track of Vic’s album into the mix. We worked on the song for weeks but were never able to match its wistfulness, its forlornness, its honesty; we were never able to replicate the way the song just simply and effortlessly existed. It sounded so unlike a studied recording and so much like a man sitting in a motel room just east of the border, his life evaporating before him. Vic and this album were one of the reasons that we decided to venture down to Athens, Georgia (his home town) to record Lay It Down. Several months later when our album was released we invited Vic to join us on a leg of our North American tour. The first date and our first meeting was in Ottawa at a club called Barrymores. Vic arrived in his wheelchair and was greeted by a flight of about thirty stairs which were the only way in to  the second floor club. I was more upset about it than he was, he just shrugged his shoulders and asked the two strongest people that he could corral to carry him and his chair up the stairs. No big deal…just another surmountable obstacle in the life of someone who spent the better part of the last two decades on the road. Throughout that tour we watch Vic every night as he, stymied, infuriated, intentionally pissed-off and then subtly disarmed and won over audiences across the US and Canada. There was no secret to his game, just him, his guitar, and his uncanny voice, which could be grating and beautiful in the same breath, and the flat out honesty of his songs. After that tour we would cross paths occasionally out on the road, or when he came through Toronto, but mainly we kept touch through his music. After West of Rome he seemed to release an album of new material every year (including the stunning collection Is The Actor Happy) all the while keeping up a hectic tour schedule. We hooked up again in the early 2000’s when we did a tour of the UK with him. I have two treasured memories of him from that tour. The first is from our first gig in Leeds where Vic arrived with his bass player and drummer in tow. The trio had spent the past few weeks rehearsing several albums worth of material. In the car ride over to the gig Vic had told them that the drummer would now be playing bass and the bass player would be playing drums. Neither of them had any practical experience on the others instrument but Vic wanted to keep the material fresh and edgy. They both had the look of freshly caught fish. My other memory from that tour is a show in Brighton which took place in a beautiful wood and glass pavilion that had the most delicate acoustics. Vic played to the room. The instruments all but disappeared; Vic songs took flight on the wings of his falsetto and floated, soared and swoop around the space. In my declining years I’ll swear that he did the entire set a cappella, because that is what it felt like. We like to say that music can transport one’s being, one’s essence, from one plane to another, but who can say that they have ever been truly transported….I can, thanks to Vic. Our last get together with Vic was in 2007 when he came up to Toronto to help us with our Trinity Revisited project. The consummate professional, Vic was prepared and patient and willing to work, no muss, no fuss. My favourite moment of our two days together was when Vic and I played the song Postcard Blues together for the first time. Vic singing and playing guitar in his inimitable fashion and me parrying with my guitar, his voice and our instruments ringing throughout magical Trinity church. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, it was just a rehearsal and it wasn’t recorded. During the taping and recording of Trinity we had an opportunity to do a bit of playing together while the film crew adjusted lights and did those time consuming things that film crews do. It was during one of those breaks that we came up with the idea of doing a Chesnutt/Junkies album. It would be his songs and we’d be the band. We talked about it through email and on the phone and tried to block some time in each of our schedules. The last time that we talked he said that he was working on a song cycle centered around his childhood in Georgia and maybe this would be the album that we would record together. I was on a cell phone in a parking lot outside a gig in Maine and he was in a van driving on the QEW heading to a gig in Toronto. And that was all.

We are trying to approach Demons with the same sense of adventure that Vic undertook all of his projects (or at least that is the way his recordings sound). We are letting happy accidents happen, we are trying to invest his songs with the same spirit and the adventure in which they were written, but at the same time we are trying to invest them with our own Northern spin. We have thrown about twenty of his songs into the proverbial pot and we will let the process decide which songs find their way on to the finished album. Exploring his songs and delving deeper and deeper into them, as one must do in order to do justice to any cover song, has been an intense, moving and joyous experience. I don’t think Vic would have wanted it any other way.

Here is our version of Wrong Piano. I don’t think I have ever heard Margo sing so well in the studio and, man, I love my new Fairfield Circuitry pedal…and…oh ya…if you have a freak flag its time to fly it…our aim is to have the album in your hands by mid-November.

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Happy Birthday Bruce

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

From our good friend Ron Wells…

On September 23, 1949,  there was a Devil in the swamps of Jersey, there was a darkness on the edge of town. People were burned by angels who sold wings of lead.

When out of nowhere a holy man whispered, “Hold on brothers, there’s a light up ahead.”
At this moment, God was drifting in heaven, when He looked down where the E Street boy Prophets were standing, waiting, looking handsome, but hot. When suddenly, from far up above, and heading towards the earth below, the sparks of life flew down upon E Street until there before one and all, stood a man who offered living proof that it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right.
The sights of the sun burst forth in musical notes, blinding all the onlookers with their light until, when everyone was finally able to see, there stood a giant of man who sang, “I believe in the hope that can save me, I believe in the faith that can raise me above these badlands.”
Quickly, the Devil took off, last seen heading for Nebraska, as Bruce Springsteen  held his guitar above his head like a sacred instrument and proclaimed that everyone must show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.
And out of nowhere, out of nothing, the Prophets became his band of brothers and sisters, bonded by blood, surrounding him, until he gave the charge, “No retreat, no surrender!”
The clarion call was heard  ‘round the world, there was dancing in the streets, for now there was a reason to believe that he had a little piece of the Lord’s undying light.
So off he sped, Scooter and the Big Man and the other Jersey Prophets right on his heals, while all the while the little pretties raised their hands, as Bruce and the Band headed for Promised Land by way of the land of hopes and dreams.
‘Cause his train, carried saints and sinners, his train carried losers and winners, and the magical, mystical, music of the spheres, was everyone’s for the taking. No longer was anyone afraid of the fears that were once so real.
For on that day, Bruce Frederick Springsteen, no hero, it’s understood, was born in the USA, born to run, as he led everyone, from mad men, drummers, bummers, Indians in the summer, to teenage diplomats, anyone around the world who cared to come along for the ride, to join him in song and search for their beautiful rewards.
For he had, indeed, brought living proof that dreams will not be thwarted, and faith will be rewarded.
Happy 61st birthday, Bruce.
Thanks for 35 years of songs, joy, and inspiration.

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Renmin Park, volume 1 – Renmin Park

Friday, September 17th, 2010

One of the most important songs on the album is Renmin Park: it is the title track as well as the song that opens and closes the album. The song sets up the metaphorical love story that is the album. Initially my idea was to actually write a song cycle that dealt with the two lovers who are the protagonists in this song. As I began to explore this idea, I soon realized that I wouldn’t be able to sustain such a narrative and that it wouldn’t allow me to explore the many different aspects of our visit to China. I also began to see that the song wasn’t as narrow-cast as I initially envisioned. When I started writing the song I imagined two characters, one Chinese the other a foreigner, and their relationship was an illicit one. The narrative of the song is a simple one about them trying to arrange their clandestine meetings at landmarks around their town (Jingjiang). These landmarks are actual places in Jingjiang; the town is located on the Yangtze and its primary industry is shipbuilding and the shipyards dominate the river front; Gu Xian Temple is an actual Buddhist temple set on top of the only hill in Jingjiang; the song of the propane seller is something that greeted us every morning as the man in charge of refilling the communities propane tanks would travel through the neighbourhood at 6am calling out to let people know that he was there (you can hear the “song” in quite a few of the sound collages throughout the album); and the stone bridge and the pond is something that is common to pretty much every Renmin Park throughout China. The song took on more and more layers as the album developed. I began to realise that it wasn’t just a fictional love story, but also, partly, my friend Mr Liu’s love story; it was also a metaphor for my families love affair with this quirky town and the people who had embraced us; it was also a comment on the very odd and sometimes clandestine love affair that the people of China have with their past and their present and their very uncertain future. The Chinese adore their country, they are exceptionally proud of it, not in a jingoistic way, but more in the way that a mother adores her extremely troubled son. It has brought them lots of pain, and they know that they are destined to experience that pain time and time again, but they have also seen it sparkle and soar. And, after all, it is their creation, and only they can truly understand it and truly, deeply appreciate it.

Here are some of photos taken in some of the places that inspired the images in the song. It’s now time to move on to Volume 2….Demons….and to welcome you all to the world of Vic Chesnutt…stay tuned…


Created with flickr slideshow from softsea.

If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:

Renmin Park – Introduction

Renmin Park – The Place

Renmin Park – The Sounds

Renmin Park – The Music

Renmin Park – The Lyrics

Renmin Park – A Few Bags of Grain

Renmin Park – Little Dark Heart

Renmin Park – My Fall and I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side

Renmin Park – A Walk In The Park

Renmin Park – Mr Liu

Renmin Park – Stranger Here

Renmin Park – You’ve Got To Get A Good Heart

Renmin Park – Ciccadas

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LIVE!

Sunday, September 12th, 2010

We’ve added some new music to the Music Catalogue section of our website. It’s a limited edition four song EP called LIVE!. It was originally released by BMG in 1992. It’s a very nice little document of one of our favourite tours: the Black Eyed Man tour that we did with John Prine. The EP includes a duet between Margo and John on “If You Were The Woman And I Was The Man”. When John first heard this recording he commented, “man, you guys are swingin’ like the Goodman orchestra”. High praise. Also included on the EP is a darn good version of the Flying Burrito Brothers “Hot Burrito #1”. This is a tricky little number and I don’t think we ever did it again after the Black Eyed Man tour. You can listen to the whole EP for free and if you like it….please buy it….Of course, if you have purchased a Clubhouse Subscription you can go into the Clubhouse section and download the EP for free….There’s lots more music to come over the next several months (including three brand new albums) so please sign up for a Subscription if you haven’t already. It’s good value for your hard earned dollars and it helps to keep the website growing and the music flowing.

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Renmin Park, volume 1 – Sir Francis Bacon At The Net

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

(this blog was posted earlier on the NPR All Songs Considered website.)

The roots of this song are quite varied and complicated. It started as a musical structure based around the field recording that you hear, which is of two men playing badminton in Renmin Park. Every Tuesday and Thursday I would go to the park at 7am to play badminton with a group of people, a couple of them were People’s Liberation Army old guards. I was befriended by one of them and through him I was introduced to a few other men of his generation and over the weeks of getting together, and then going to breakfast after our game, they would slowly unveil their stories. All of them had been members of the PLA (airforce, intelligence, foot soldiers); all of them had harrowing stories of their lives during the Cultural Revolution (after they had given their youth to their country, fighting for an ideal put forth by Mao). All of them had been imprisoned; one of them (the man who befriended me) was in a labour camp for 16 years. And yet when I tried to broach the subject of Mao and his legacy, I never heard one discouraging word and more often than not there was praise. Part of this was an old world wariness about speaking out on a subject as politically volatile as Mao, but I also began to realize that Mao’s legacy is rooted in so much contradiction and personal history.

So the lyrics started off as an attempt at touching on that contradiction (So calculating it parses a man / between the hand that held the dream / and the sword being held by the hand. / Their golden frames hang gleaming. / Tangled bones of their crimes bleaching. / Their golden frames hang gleaming. / Bleaching bones of their crimes tangling.) From there the song grew…it touches on the inevitability of the next “Mao” rising up (There he stands a mere mist of a thing / Waiting his turn to challenge the King)…and the proclivity to violence in that country’s history:  man-made to nature’s violence (Merciless nature, both human and mother, walk this land each through the arm of the other) and then it ends with a comment on how the outcome of these cataclysmic violent upheavals (the man-made ones) are completely and totally unpredictable. The first line is based on a Chinese saying about the uncertainty of predicting the future and the second half is the same theme but based on a Sir Francis Bacon quote (As the map is unrolled the dagger comes out / and that which was certain will now end in doubt.)

The title of the song brings in to play the field recording of the badminton game and the underlying theme of the song which is based around the Bacon quote about all things beginning in certainty inevitably end in doubt. By looking at China’s past and talking to those who have lived through the turbulence of the past 80 years, it seemed to me like this quote was a fitting way to predict its future.

Sir Francis Bacon At The Net

Merciless nature

human and mother

walk this land

each through the arm of the other.

Their tithe they count in millions.

In a Land that loves its villains.

So calculating

it parses a man

between the hand that held the dream

and the sword being held by the hand.

Their golden frames hang gleaming.

Tangled bones of their crimes bleaching.

Their golden frames hang gleaming.

Bleaching bones of their crimes tangling.

There he stands

a mere mist of a thing

waiting his turn

to challenge the King.

He counts his time in centuries.

He lives on the smallest of mercies.

He counts his time in centuries.

As the map is unrolled

the dagger comes out

and that which was certain

will now end in doubt.

Thank you Sir Francis Bacon.

Another piece of advice not taken.

Thank you Sir Francis Bacon.

Another piece of advice not taken.

This video has nothing to do with the song, but this was the scene outside of our window every weekday morning at 6:30am. These are the morning exercises that all school kids in China partake in. Some of these sounds can be found throughout the album, especially in the Intro sound collage.

If you’d like to catch up on some past blogs about the Renmin Park album, just click on a link:

Renmin Park – Introduction

Renmin Park – The Place

Renmin Park – The Sounds

Renmin Park – The Music

Renmin Park – The Lyrics

Renmin Park – A Few Bags of Grain

Renmin Park – Little Dark Heart

Renmin Park – My Fall and I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side

Renmin Park – A Walk In The Park

Renmin Park – Mr Liu

Renmin Park – Stranger Here

Renmin Park – You’ve Got To Get A Good Heart

Renmin Park – Cicadas

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September / October Tour Dates

Wednesday, September 8th, 2010

We’ll be in the Pacific Northwest and Northern California in late September and early October. Come out and say hello to us in Bellingham, Edmonds and Covington, WA; Vancouver, BC; Bend, Portland and Grants Pass, OR; and Napa and San Francisco, CA.

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Renmin Park, volume 1 – Cicadas

Saturday, September 4th, 2010

On June 4th 1989 we were touring the west coast of the United States, when word escaped from China about the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The world had been watching, there had been this sparkle of hope shining from a country that had been dark to us for so many years. And then it ended in such a brutal and final fashion. For the rest of that tour we dedicated Powderfinger to those who had been out on the square: ultimately, a futile gesture. Despite the futility, we performed the song each night because it felt right to try and mark this moment in history, it felt right to take pause.

The history of The June 4th Movement has all but been officially wiped out from China’s collective memory. It’s not a subject that is lightly raised among the older generation and yet in certain company mentioning it would draw honest blank expressions: for most people under the age of thirty it is like it never took place. Tiananmen Square is a massive public square in the heart of Beijing. The only thing rising from its stone is Mao’s mausoleum: when you stand in the middle of the square it’s hard not to imagine that night and the thousands of people gathered and the coming of the tanks and the panic and the fear and the terror. This was the last lyric that I wrote for the album.

Hear them buzzing in the trees

A lot like us a dying breed.

One voice now is all we need.

Hear them buzzing in the trees.

Nothing left but empty shells.

No memory now of where we fell.

No one left to truely tell

the tale of how we truley fell.

Once again the simple truth

is crushed beneath the leather boot.

A lot like us a dying breed.

No trees here to hide behind

those big red wheels they slowly grind.

Hear them buzzing in the trees.

Tiananmen Square and The Forbiden City



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