“Where can a heretic call home?” Chris Whitley repeatedly intones that rhetorical question to open the title track of his and Jeff Lang’s new album, Dislocation Blues. Whitley’s distinctive, high resonating rasp is the perfect vehicle for this phrase: each strained repetition further solidifies the paradoxical mix of resolution and resignation. Of course, the now-deceased Whitley knew well that there was no enduring home for his unique brand of heretic, but his impressive catalogue attests to the fact that he was determined to make his mark on the world during his all-too-brief stay in it.
When the Texas bluesman succumbed to lung cancer in 2005 at the relatively tender age of 45, he left behind a solid legacy of blues/rock fusion. Whether playing in the ambient soundscapes of Daniel Lanois or a more elemental setting, Whitley’s dry, wizened voice matched his equally unique style on his vintage National guitars to create a singular, immediately recognizable sound.
Though it was undoubtedly not intended to serve as such, Dislocation Blues is a fitting conclusion to Whitley’s recording career. The record documents a collaboration between the Texan and Australian blues/roots master Jeff Lang. Here, the two tackle a range of covers, standards, and originals in a variety of styles and formats. Sometimes the principals perform alone or as a duo, and at other times bassist Grant Cummerford and drummer Ashley Davies join in to flesh out the sound. The result is a varied record that is honest and accessible; in matching their abundant virtuosity with an impressive depth of feeling, Whitley and Lang manage to deliver a record that demonstrates their mastery of their instruments as surely as it does their appreciation for the humility at the core of the blues.
All of these qualities are on display on the record’s standout track, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guards” on which the two perform as a duo, trading the song’s nine evocative verses in a delightfully natural and self-assured manner. Whitley’s dry vocals form a delightful contrast with Lang’s sweeter turns and some sublime guitar picking provides an ideal backdrop for Dylan’s poignant narrative.
“Changing of the Guards” is not the only successful Dylan cover on this record. Whitley breathes new life into the considerably better-known composition “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. The first verse of this rendition exemplifies Whitley’s unique capabilities as a performer. The manner in which Whitley’s voice massages words like “Rome” and “rubble” perfectly reflects the undercurrent of exasperation that runs throughout this apparently hopeful song. As Whitley knew all too well, one can always look to the promise of a brighter future even as a bleak present stretches on and on. Davies’ rambunctious drum part further adds to this infectious spirit of restlessness.
For his part, Lang distinguishes himself with sweet and self-assured harmony vocals on Whitley’s tracks along with some solid originals. The contemplative “Ravenswood” provides an ideal space for some ornate guitar work and a somber narrative about the decline of a small rural community in the face of widespread emigration to the city. “The Road Leads Down” is a more propulsive track, but it feels no less natural and Lang’s fleet-fingered guitar work provides one of the record’s early highlights. In typical fashion, Lang’s lyrics refer to blues originator Robert Johnson while the playing exemplifies the manner in which these artists consistently look to carve out innovative new territory within the genre.
The only minor quibble with “The Road Leads Down” is the song’s abrupt ending; it seems to fold over just as Lang is preparing to take off on another flight of dobro fancy. Any consternation is promptly dispelled, however, by the sublime “Dislocation Blues” in which Whitley lays his vivid lyrical abstractions over a crackling bed of National guitar and chumbush — a 12-string fretless banjo from Turkey — parts. Along with his masterful re-interpretations of other’s compositions, visceral originals like “Dislocation Blues” are sure to form the heart of Chris Whitley’s legacy.
Beyond the fact that it possibly represents Chris Whitley’s last recording, Dislocation Blues is notable because it documents a fruitful collaboration between two masters of progressive blues music. Whitley and Lang contrast and complement each other in a natural and intuitive fashion, and that connection permits them to perform a range of material in an innovative, genre-melding fashion while retaining the elemental feel that is so essential to the blues. One might feel a twinge of sadness at Chris Whitley’s passing at such a young age, but recordings such as this one will undoubtedly ensure that his influence within the blues genre remains strong for many years to come.