Chris Whitley’s blues have usually been a deeply buried blues, hidden beneath a swirling distorted din, buried—on record at least—underneath layered levels of production. His initial trio of albums for Columbia’s Work label bore the imprimatur of a pioneer searching for a new sonic land: titles like “Bordertown” and “Immortal Blues” reminded the listener of Whitley’s roots in Texas even while his folk-rooted songs sounded ultimately more the product of New York’s urban struggle than the wide-open country from which they came. While obvious hints like the acoustic “New Machine” and “As Flat As the Earth” were present on records with deserving self-descriptions like Din of Ecstasy and Terra Incognita, Chris Whitley was not easily identifiable from his records as a slide-guitar singing bluesman of the highest order.
Unless, of course, you were lucky enough to see Whitley in concert. Boots stomping out the beat, steel guitar punching out alternating rhythms and lead splashes with the efficacy of a blind Willie named McTell, Chris Whitley is a pure wonder to behold when appearing unarmed save for a National guitar and a gleaming slide. In concert, the artist’s essence as one of the great contemporary inheritors of the blues is made immediately manifest. Much of Whitley’s blues spirit was captured on his 2000 release, Live at Martyr’s, which catches Whitley discovering unrecognized land in the greatest musical venue in Chicago. That recording, however, opens with the wail of a 1920s guitar plugged into a 1960s-era amp, with expectable results that flirt outrageously with what Whitley would call the edge of ecstasy’s din: the album showcases how a man whose recorded work featured such intricate sonic texturing could artfully reproduce so much of it all by his lonesome.
On Weed, Whitley is again all by himself; this time, however, he locks himself up in a bathroom—in Germany, if I read the liner notes correctly—and revisits the best material from his first three albums in a pure and unadulterated form. For the listener completely unaware of Whitley’s work over the past decade-plus, Weed might at first sound like a long-lost record out of the Delta’s distant past: his songs ring with emotional presence and horrifying loneliness of every classic blues recording, from the popping of his steel strings under the fingered pressure of his slide to the wailing warble in his voice to the scratchy hiss that permeates this (intentionally) down-home recording. “Clear Blue Sky”, with its hypnotic guitar line and hummed falsetto repetition of the lyric gives the impression of a newly unburied John Lee Hooker gem; Whitley punctures the pure rhythm of “Know You” with plaintive guitar wails that immediately recall the broken meter and stylistic simplicity of Robert Johnson. And while these comparisons might strike the reader as either hyperbole or sacrilege, Chris Whitley proves himself, throughout the hour-long solo tour-de-force that is Weed, that he is worthy of these mighty associations.
Whitley compares to many of the great blues legends in another, perhaps less favorable fashion: he seems to be aware that his first work might perhaps be his best. Since the time his Terra Incognita failed to keep him on Columbia’s map, Whitley busied himself making records for a series of independent labels; nonetheless, three of his seven post-Columbia albums have been, like Weed, new presentations of his Columbia material. A retrospective, a live album, and now a home recording argue well for the value of Whitley’s first 30 or so songs, regardless of their presentation. Indeed while Weed sonically resembles Dirt Floor (Whitley’s first post-major label record) almost to a tee, this year’s model is a far superior version because its songs are simply stronger. Tracks of the caliber of “Living with the Law”, “Narcotic Prayer”, and “Cool Wooden Crosses”, each of which seared with electric intensity on Whitley’s original albums, still burn today even in acoustic form. This new collection of older songs captures a performer perfectly united with his best material; the result is a wonderful recording of superb music.
One could argue that Weed marks Whitley’s distancing himself from a perhaps over-blown sonic past, that the acoustic purity of these new recordings is a rejection of a past to mightily fed on feedback. This particular case could be made all the stronger by the feel of Whitley’s recent fiasco with the over-produced, electronica-tempered Rocket House, and the almost stark retreat that makes its follow-up Hotel Vast Horizon almost imperceptible. Is Whitley forsaking his loud past, forgoing any attempt to rediscover the din of ecstasy, in order to return to a far more recognizable sonic landscape of straightforward instrumentation led by a solitary voice? A first answer could be positive, given the history of Whitley’s past few records. Yet, even as this critic types away at his keyboard, Whitley is in the studio engaged in his craft: his next album, the press releases promise, is being produced by none other than soundsmith Malcolm Burn, who introduced the beautiful layers and textures to Living with the Law, Whitley’s first album, whose strongest songs are stripped-down for Weed. In the end, then, this new record marks not an artist’s dismissal of his early work, but a loving embrace of his most potent material, which—as Whitley proves—consistently stands the test of time.