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Under The Radar Music #2 - Chris Whitley
By Mick Polich - 02/03/2010 - 01:16 PM EST

New cities, states, countries – sure we hear about some music from those regions that’s somehow made it to the top of the publicity heap. What about the music that flies under the radar, so to speak?  There’s a ton of music, even with file sharing, that doesn’t get to us. Does it matter, or are we missing out on some cool stuff?

Ever since I was a wee lad, I’ve always had some sort of ‘music radar’ – I could walk into a the classic record shop, or department store, and hear some music that was fairly cool waif it’s way over to me. During the record/cassette/CD shop era, somehow, someway, somebody behind the counter would always be playing some tuneage that perked up my ears. Was I just that open of a receptor, or was this a little ‘present’ to help me with my musical selections? Didn’t matter – I said, “Boy howdy”, and went with it…..

Lately, I’ve been revisiting some old favorites in the collection – I try to reserve the “Under The Radar” series for some local folks, but I think this time (since I’ve sat on this article for awhile, and it’s given me time to revise it), I’m going back to a certain music and artist that have captured a bit of the ol’ fancy in the earbuds……..

So, last night, while subbing at a music studio for a friend, I encountered a young man for one of my music lessons who was very serious about the blues. Judging from his manner, hand size (huge hands for a 14 year old, which reminded of SRV and Hendrix, with hands that could have been stitched onto someone a foot taller ), and the way that he played(pretty damn good for only 3 months), this kid needed a half an hour of talking to about who, what, when, and where in Blues-villa.

So, with that, I turn another blog around from whence I started in another spot with this writing – the deep blues.

In turn, this brings me to the late, great Chris Whitley.

Before succumbing to lung cancer in 2005, the body of work that Chris left is measurable, and palpable. His music could be as delicate and beautiful as a bird in flight against a coastline, or as rough and hell bent as shells from a thirty-ought six, fired in a rage. Beginning with his debt album (and probably his best known work for any so-called ‘hits’),”Living With The Law” back in 1991, Chris was a mystery wrapped inside a riddle lined with an enigma – the skinny, sometimes drug - addled, always chain-smoking, American of Irish ancestry, usually playing solo – vox and guitar, stomping a foot to keep time with a voice that dripped of good whiskey and well –worn experience in a way-too short existence. Firing deep blues and deeper humanity from his National Resophonic dobro guitar, Chris sang about life in the dark undercurrent – all the untidy crevasses and blacked out corners. He sang about the places few people thought about going (if they either had the guts, or were way too stupid, given the outcome). In my view, he was the blackest white bluesman I’ve heard in 40 years.

Thing is, this guy was deep blues – lived it, died for it, and resonated it. A troubadour who traveled the world, Chris finally got discovered by uber-producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan), who set Chris up to record with Lanois protégé’ producer Malcom Burns, down in Dan’s New Orleans-based studio at the time. Whatever was in the water from Chris' native Houston,Texas birthplace (same water that spawned ZZ Top and King’s X), it sure as hell got into his blood, and coarsen its way out his veins onto his guitar and throat. Any Chris Whitley CD has some pretty intense life stories woven into it.

And the cool thing to me was, it wasn’t always the country - voodoo blues resonator style that propelled his stuff – the guy could hit on smoky cool, Chet Baker style jazz, as well as grinding noise-rock ala Sonic Youth to make a point. Check out the cuts “Never”, and “Din”, on his CD, “Din Of Ecstasy” – Chris’ electric guitar work just explodes in noise and feedback throughout. This isn’t controlled, polished, processed guitar feedback – all cleaned-up, and sonically hitting some acceptable pitches – this is guitar work that just grabs you by the shirt and throws you across the room - because it’s VERY pissed off, and it wants you to know. This sort of  guitar sound comes from another realm, another world, entirely – it’s more visceral than technique – based (although there is a technique used to get there), more emotional than intellectual. Jagged with sharp edges –the guitar, acoustic and electric throughout the CD, actually seems to be falling off a cliff, for the most part. Along with Chris’ most passionate vocals, the album is a continuous IV drip of sensuality, regret, loss, and retribution. If Hendrix were around, I think he would be apt to say, ”Cool”, because Chris’ electric guitar work here is clearly a homage to Jimi in spirit and body…..

Let’s take another song from that album,”Some Candy Talking” – double metaphors abound in a tale about heading to a ‘damp and hungry place tonight’. Sex as a drug, drugs as a drug, heartbreak and loss as drugs - it could be all these subjects, and then, none of them (but I think ALL of them, and more). The Hendrixian guitar work just explodes here – the atonal, dissonant solo setting a discomforting tone, but fittingly for the song.

The next cut,”Guns And Dolls”, deals with similar subject matter, set to a tribal beat with heavy electric guitar movement throughout. It MOVES. After listening to this album again, I feel the way I always feel - spent, wasted, drenched. But baby, it was GOOD.

You know, lyrically, I love songwriters that give me a story, a scene, words straight forward or not, something to chew on. Yeah, I listen to my share of music that doesn’t require a lot of involvement - it’s fun like fries and a shake. But -  like Steve Earle, Mary Gauthier, Rickie Lee Jones, Lucinda Williams, and Tom Waits - I GO somewhere with Chris’ stuff.

Throughout his albums, Chris wasn’t afraid to experiment – DJ Logic adds turntables, drum loops, and samples to the party on the CD, ”Rocket House”, and jazz/jam band alumni Medeski, Martin, and Wood show up on the stark, bare, and gorgeous “Perfect Day” collection (The Doors “Crystal Ship” has never gotten a better rendering….).  

As I touch up my syntax on this blog, I listen to the “Rocket House” CD – I have forgotten the organic beauty when electronics, samples, loops, and processing mix with acoustic and electric instruments in the hands of someone who just doesn’t put them thru the sonic meat processor. It's inspirating to me as a songwriter, song sculptor, and musician. Vocally, lyrically, “Say Goodbye” is a song from this CD that tragically, yet joyfully, emits a story that is true Whitley – leave it behind because it doesn’t matter anyway, yet it does in the end – the search, the confusion. Man, I forgot how much I missed this collection......

True blues, to me anyway, aren’t gussied up and sanctified for mass consumption – when they are, sometimes the entire point of the music is lost. Too processed, too cleaned up. Respect aside for Stevie Ray, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Johnny Lang – in their way, in their realm, they’ve presented a viable case, and an ‘acceptable’ conduit in some eyes, for a music that has been a basic staple of living and breathing around the world for centuries - but never fully realized, and recognized for the same human envelope that it engulfs everybody in, without them knowing it (thank God Buddy Guy is still around to show us what for, and keep us honest in that!).

I am thankful that Clapton, Beck, Jimi, and Johnny Winter showed me the way to Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, Jimmy Reed, and the Mississippi Delta folk, like Junior Kimbrough and T Model Ford.

So…….. I plead my case for Chris Whitley. I will get the ‘huhs’ and “I don’t get where you’re coming from, Polich”, or “It sounds like the dude is on heroin”(which, he was, unfortunately, for a time), but I tell ya, life ain’t always scrubbed up, and presented as the $120 lobster special. Listen to any Whitley song, and tell me if the man wasn’t honest in the music – you get what you get, and that’s direct current from a dude who was a living, plugged-in, live wire for music. Esoteric lyrics? Maybe, but can you figure out everything Dylan is talking about? Nope. Not everyone’s cup o’ joe, but it’s all laid out - even in his mystery, double entendre, life – on – the – south-side lyrics, in-your-face acoustic, and electric guitar playing.

Sometimes the point of the music is the emotion – the stream-of-consciousness flow that takes you OUT, and brings you back on a bed of sweltering pillows…...

And that, kids, if you go back, and listen to the blues ‘old masters’, is what they are talkin’ ‘bout.

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