Chris Whitley in Burlington, Vermont
“ Chris Whitley is as proud to be an independent musician as he is bent on being an original one ”
You don’t necessarily have to see Chris Whitley live to appreciate what a singular musician he is. Any of his recent CD’s including Weed and the brand new War Crime Blues (not to mention the haunting Hotel Vast Horizon from 2003, all on Messenger Records) depict an individualistic, uncompromising artist. But if you catch a performance like Whitley’s recent appearance in Vermont, you truly appreciate this modern bluesman for what he is(as well as for what he is not).
Chris Whitley made a fairly large splash when he first started recording for Columbia Records over a decade ago and to many fans Living with the Law , including tunes he performed at Metronome like “Big Sky Country,’ his ringing climactic set closer, remains his definitive statement. But Chris has loyally followed his muse in the intervening decade, producing pure solo albums, such as the one recorded in Vermont called Dirt Floor , as well as ambitious pieces such as Perfect Day , a cd of cover material—which contains the spooky Doors song “The Crystal Ship” Whitley slipped into into his club set early Wednesday night—where his rhythm section was comprised of Billy Martin and Chris Wood of Medeski, Martin & Wood.
So it is that Whitley performs in such small clubs hardly filled with people but fervently following his every word and motion on stage. He has no show-business presence to speak of because he is so deeply immersed in the music he’s playing, turning familiar songs from that first album like its title song into slightly dissonant pieces of country-blues. When Whitley does looks at his audience, his wide-eyed gaze brings to mind the phrase about the proverbial deer in the headlights, but he plays with a confidence that strikes a chords with his fans: to say the crowd was enraptured by his performance is to understate it.
And that’s not so surprising: Whitley makes what is arguably the most haunting of all of contemporary blues. If it seems on first listening that Hotel Vast Horizon lacks a knockout punch, there’s still no denying it will freeze you in your tracks and make you sit down and listen to its skeletal beauty; the dreamlike quality of his lyrics like those to “Assassin’s Song”- echoed most loudly throughout Club Metronome when he played it, in part because of his idiosyncratic vocal phrasing. But if his Burlington performance confirmed anything, it is that Chris Whitley is as proud to be an independent musician as he is bent on being an original one: his guitar playing, often with a slide on various guitars(among them the national steel), has taken on an extra layer of atonal ambience since he began spending so much time across the Atlantic ocean.
Like many unsung heroes of jazz, Whitley is something of an expatriate to Europe: recording and touring there as often as in America in recent years. Hotel was produced wholly in Germany, as was Weed and Blues , but each is distinctly different in tone. Recorded with a trio, Hotel gains continuity and diversity through the agile skill of his rhythm section. In yet another curve in a career full of breaking balls, Weed posts Whitley as a folksinger as he performs a clutch of songs both old and new, in such a straightforward style, you first think he’s shortchanging himself, only to realize he’s chosen to focus on his material for the project.
With War Crime Blues , keynoted by a cover of The Clash’s “The Call-Up,” you hear Chris Whitley more like you are used to him, as if possessed by his music; you might argue the album would benefit by some more focused production, but Whitley’s music thrives on suggestion in both lyric, melody and performance; to make it more literal might well destroy much of its attraction. As he commented early on February 18th, there were wars going on that render Grammy awards meaningless. The impact of his music on this album, whether an original like the stark “Made From Dirt” or Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It,” becomes magnified upon repeated listenings, but especially when rendered live by the man himself, a somewhat spectral figure who creates charisma through his songs rather than by the way he dresses.
Little wonder then that Chris Whitley has only made passing attempts to court the mainstream with such albums as the otherwise splendid Rocket House. His music sounds best live, where its essentially hungry, erotic undercurrent becomes palpable. Chris spoke fondly of his experience in the state of Vermont more than once during his hour and a half set at Metronome and you can only hope he enjoyed his appearance here as much as those who paid to see him. He can’t come back too often.