[29 April 2003]
ast Wednesday night the Village Underground was compensating for Mayor Bloomberg’s citywide smoking ban by piping a bluish smoke into the roomful of nicotine-deprived hipsters, like holding photographs of food in front of starving children. The only people who weren’t bothered were those sporting NYC’s latest must-have accessory, the nicotine inhaler. Them and Chris Whitley, that is, who lit a cigarette as he walked on stage, leaning into the microphone to say, “How about that mayor?” Whitley’s never been one to pay much mind to authority, whether it’s Mayor Bloomberg or Dave Matthews and the cronies over at ATO Records, whom Whitley spent much of his last tour badmouthing from the stage (Yes, he was signed to ATO at the time. No, he’s not anymore.).
The ATO episode involved an album, Rocket House, that buried Whitley’s qualities under Tony Mangurian’s heavy-handed production, and a grueling tour that left Whitley exhausted and on the edge. He spent nearly a year in Germany recharging, and now he’s back with a new record on Brandon Kessler’s excellent New York independent label Messenger Records, already home to two of his best, Dirt Floor and Live at Martyr’s. The record, Hotel Vast Horizon, was recorded as a trio, with Heiko Schramm on bass and Matthias Macht on drums, both of whom have joined Whitley on this tour. Whitley’s songwriting has taken a strange and beautiful turn for this record, becoming even more elliptical and slippery, every chord unexpected, but never jarring. The songs can seem monotonous, undifferentiated, but that’s because the experience of listening to them is like walking into a garden in the middle of the night: it all may be black at first, but if you stick around long enough for your eyes to adjust, there are flowers all around you.
Whitley played almost all of Hotel Vast Horizon during this concert, on electric guitar first, but then switching to his two beat-up National steel guitars for the duration. It’s always a shock to hear what a brutal tone he conjures from these instruments when he plays them live. Amplified to a level of almost constant distortion, he makes them howl, he makes them bite. Played live, the songs had a completely different feel from their recorded versions, every round edge made jagged, every implication made explicit. Each song opened with a lengthy tuning session, as Whitley uses a wide array of unusual tunings, and he hadn’t hired a guitar tech for this tour. Underneath the tuning, Macht would start the drumbeat for the next song, and Whitley would half tune, half play, until he had all his strings in order. These improvisatory openings were some of the show’s highpoints, although they rarely ended with Whitley entirely in tune. Not that it mattered all that much, as Whitley’s style involves stretching jolting tones far further than they are used.
From where I was standing, I couldn’t hear a single note played by Schramm. From the album, I know that he is an excellent bassist, and I like the way he moves (as if he were dancing at a rave). But his absence in the mix was not a problem, as Whitley never really needs a bass. His guitar provides more than enough low-end firepower, and his chords are so unusually voiced that most bassists are at a loss to find elegant lines to play beneath him. Macht is a sensitive drummer with a light, precise touch, but his playing is a bit too even, too predictable, to really work with Whitley. The only drummer who has ever successfully locked into Whitley’s truly bizarre sense of rhythm is the great Dougie Bowne, who played with him on Din of Ecstasy and Terra Incognita. Otherwise, Whitley is better off sticking to his famed amplified foot stomp. Whitley’s voice was in beautiful form all night; he wasn’t pushing it too ferociously, and his falsetto was at its best. His falsetto is unique, with none of the “I’m sensitive” implications that come with falsetto the way it is used by almost all male singers. It is the voice of a ghost, all breath, with no weight behind it at all. At times, Whitley alternates between his falsetto and his chest voice the same way that Muhammad Ali boxed: “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.”
Interspersed between the Hotel songs were a few from his last album, Rocket House, and from his first, Living With the Law. One of the peculiarities of Whitley’s performance style is that songs from many different parts of his career end up sounding extraordinarily similar when he plays them live. It becomes clear that, while his albums range from the solo acoustic balladry of Dirt Floor (an album for which the word “ruminations” was probably coined) to the feedback-drenched guitar rock of Din of Ecstasy, the essence of his work has remained the same. The evening’s quietest moment, and one of its best, was a cover of the Doors’ “Crystal Ship”. Whitley took Morrison’s oddly detached fantasy and made it both seductive and a little frightening, perfectly encapsulating the tension between vulnerability and violence that makes him such an extraordinary performer.
Whitley is perhaps the least self-conscious musician I know. I don’t mean that he doesn’t have stage fright, but rather that he has no pretensions towards presenting a message with his music, or towards revealing his own feelings. As genuinely strange as his music is, it is a strangeness that feels in no way thought out or premeditated—and it is a strangeness that Whitley himself seems largely unaware of. His whole career has been marked by the fuck-it-who-cares attitude of Dylan’s worst albums-except that everything he does is good. The last article I wrote for this site was a review of a Cat Power concert, and I was reminded during this show how many similarities there are between the two musicians. I doubt that they share many admirers, but both make music that insistently conveys a kind of alienated loneliness that borders on the autistic. Cat Power’s Chan Marshall wears that loneliness more openly on her sleeve than Whitley, but he is no less fragile. Chris Whitley is a real live fallen angel, and you’d do well to see him before they call him back to heaven.