[1 July 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Bobby Whitlock is something of a classic rock unsung hero. He was, most famously, a member of Derek & the Dominos, and toured as the backing band for George Harrison after he released All Things Must Pass. Whitlock also played as part of Bonnie and Delaney’s “Friends”. He’s recorded and played with Eric Clapton in these and other ventures, and he’s also recorded with the like of Buddy Guy and others.
So Whitlock, a Tennessee-born musician who got his start on Stax Records recording hand-claps on a Sam & Dave tune, was a rock journeyman, a talented sideman and songwriter tied to some admittedly more famous names. Where There’s a Will There’s a Way looks to shed light on a lesser-known chapter in his journey, as it comprises his two solo albums from 1972—Bobby Whitlock and Raw Velvet—in hopes of deepening our understanding of Whitlock’s musical world by showing him, first and foremost, as a frontman. Considering the other players on these records—both Clapton and Harrison appear, and they’re not alone—it’s safe to say Whitlock had the band to get these songs together and make them shine. But when he first submitted his eponymous debut to his record company with the Dominos, Atlantic, they said no. So Whitlock bought out his contract and moved on.
This isn’t a surprising move when we consider Whitlock’s life. Born to a deeply poor family, and son of an abusive preacher, Whitlock found escape in music, and that feeling of escape is evident in his solo records. He found a way to get them out into the world, and the results are just as bluesy and intricate as anything he did with the Dominos of Harrison, though there’s a raucous, ragged edge to these songs. Whitlock’s enthusiasm is a force to be (barely) contained. The piano-rock stomper that opens his first album, “Where There’s a Will”, he bursts forth with some “yeah yeah” howls that bust the song open and set us up for the to-the-rafters chorus. Even on quieter songs—like the pastoral folk-pop of “A Game Called Life”—his voice still overpowers the gliding guitars. The low, gruff sweetness of it gouges into the songs airy atmosphere, giving it some muddy-boot heft. Here he’s “got [his] suitcase in his hand”, wandering as he ever seems to be, towards the wistful memories of “Country Life” or the clean-cut road of “I’d Rather Live the Straight Life”. There’s a love of his hometown Tennessee in his first album, so much so that—on this track—he’d rather have that straight life there than “be a junkie in L.A.” So even as he journeys, he looks backward with the kind of nostalgia rock music is built on, though his is a particularly personal vein of that nostalgia.
With the two albums released so close together, Raw Velvet feels less like a second album and more like a continuation. The band feels a little bigger—check the army of guitars on opener “Tell the Truth”—but they deliver the same kind of blues-rock you’d expect, and with the same volatile energy. “Write You a Letter” is a particularly strong track, the crashing volume of the band keeping up (again, barely) with Whitlock’s howling vocals. He can slow things down, as on the lilting piano ballad “You Came Along”, and in these moments you feel the pause between journeys, between moments of motion. Whitlock is a musician of inertia, one that doesn’t and can’t be slowed down, but these moments of stillness offer a nice counterpoint to, say, the dusty rock of “Satisfied”.
The second half of Raw Velvet, and “You Came Along” in particular, sound like some of the strongest stuff here because, despite his irrepressible energy, despite the joy Whitlock finds in getting lost in music, there’s a bit of restraint here. To hear him peel back his shouting on “You Came Along” shows a subtlety that “A Game Called Life” lacked. The folk-rock of “Satisfied” is still charged, but not with the over-the-top size of even Raw Velvet‘s opener “Tell the Truth”. To hear these two albums now is to hear a personal story, the sound of a man not hiding from his past, but leaving it behind by reshaping it with the tools he has, the tools he loves: this music.
If that injects the music with some import, and gives us a new look into an overlooked corner of rock music history, it also shows a frontman not yet comfortable in the spotlight. Whitlock stuffs his songs with instruments and ideas, often crowding what are otherwise sweet tunes, and he oversings often (particularly on the first record), his belting voice drowning out the music behind him, even obscuring the words, which are so often guilelessly positive. Make no mistake, this is a fascinating picture of a lost side of an important musician, but while it is full of charm, that charm can’t mask the fact that this, though strong, isn’t Whitlock’s finest moment.