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(Photos: Chad Palomino)

I promised myself this concert review would not become a eulogy, goddammit. But seriously, how can it not? Like most music fans, I was saddened when I learned Vic Chesnutt slipped into a coma on Christmas Eve after an overdose of muscle relaxants and then devastated by his death the next day. This is a man whose music I admired, a man whom I interviewed, talked with on the phone and shook hands with less than month before his untimely death. But while others will scour his lyrics for references of unhappiness or suicide, I will write a Vic Chesnutt concert review where he is alive and ornery and melodic and full of the piss and vinegar friends and fans loved so much about the man.

Chesnutt cursed the “sons of bitches” in his band before the technically-delayed performance to showcase his crackling At the Cut. The crowd poured into the tiny Mississippi Studios venue, so many more people than last year’s performance with Elf Power at the Doug Fir. Chesnutt is a musician’s musician, a name synonymous with dark, gallows-humor, a man who once summed up his worldview to me as “even when you’re hanging yourself, and you fart, you laugh.” Summoning members of Fugazi, Thee Silver Mt. Zion, Witchies and Godspeed You! Black Emperor who backed him on the critically-acclaimed North Star Deserter, Chesnutt’s At the Cut found the singer at the height of his powers.

Yet rather than begin the set with a glorious new tune, Chesnutt opted to kick off with “Assist,” a bonus track from Is the Happy Actor? (1995), a quiet reverie that belies the bellowing sturm und drang the musicians surrounding him were capable of. But next came the incredible quiet-loud-quiet punch of North Star Desterter’s “Everything I Say” eliciting shouts and hoots from the enraptured audience.

Those familiar with Chesnutt live can picture his body shaking in his wheelchair, an exorcism of voice spilling from that little man, arms sometimes strumming and other times flailing in wild gesticulations. They will also know Chesnutt never took shit from his audience. While introducing new track “Concord Country Jubilee,” Chesnutt referenced his youth in Georgia, causing one exuberant member of the crowd to hoot and holler. “We grow ’em obnoxious down there,” Chesnutt said and went back to talking about his youth in Pike County.

Next came new songs like the severe “Philip Guston” and the equally aggressive and tense “Chinaberry Tree” where Chesnutt sings about chopping the fuck out of the titular tree. In between songs he affectionately called the members of his band “motherfuckers.” But the most intense moment of the evening came during “Coward,” a song Chesnutt claimed is “about me; not you. I’m killing him softly with my song.” As the song seductively built up to its explosive middle section, Chesnutt cooed and nearly whispered about the “courage of the coward.” But when hell broke loose, he shook and shuttered and wailed, that voice penetrating the wall of sound from his big band.

Before ending the set with “Flirted With You All My Life,” the track most of Chesnutt’s tributes point to as his “suicide” song, the singer took a moment to thank the Portland crowd for their kindness. “Last night they were a bunch of fucking dicks up there in Seattle.” And after introducing “Flirted” as the final song of the evening, someone shouted, “Liar!” “Don’t fucking tempt me, motherfucker,” Chesnutt shouted back, darkly joking about the obligatory nature of the encore.

But Chesnutt did return and played two songs alone, “Onion Soup” from Is the Actor Happy? and the sensory “Sewing Machine” from his Brute collaboration with Widespread Panic. But the evening’s highlight came at the very end of the show when the band returned for “Sponge” from West of Rome (1991), an album Chesnutt accused everyone in the audience of not owning. “Throughout this entire ugly outing/ I’ve been mumbling the convex of what I should be shouting/ But soon I’ll be silent / You’ll soon hear nothing.” Fuck, he was right. Goodbye, Vic.

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