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White trash and country blues: Chris Whitley feels for his niche

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By any objective criteria, Living With the Law, Chris Whitley's 1991 debut, wasn't the best record of the year. Not only because the big news in music last year continued to be in the categories of rap, metal, college/alternative rock, and dance music: even among the comparatively small pool of pop records inspired by and expanding upon traditional musical forms--folk, country, blues, and early rock and roll--English folk-rock veteran Richard Thompson's sublime Rumor and Sigh eclipsed Whitley (and most everyone in the rap, metal, college/alternative rock, and dance music divisions, too), and Dave Alvin's Blue Blvd. also had better-crafted, more varied songs. But Living With the Law was the record from last year that I listened to most, more than P.M. Dawn's or Ice-T's raps, the Meat Puppets' Forbidden Places, Robyn Hitchcock's Perspex Island, or even Nevermind. More than half a year after I first heard it, it's still wearing out the motor in my CD player. If anything, it's in heavier rotation now than the day I got it.

Living With the Law went right past my critical faculties and hit me on the two fronts that make for any great relationship with a pop record: it had the right sound, and it had the right attitude. The sound marries the brooding intensity of country blues (that is, the deep southern twang of a lost soul's lament and a steel slide on an acoustic guitar string, not the raucous electrified clatter and exuberant roar of urban blues) with haunting atmospherics and resonant, carefully layered textures. Like the most heartfelt blues, the songs express a sense of desolation in order to prevail over it. Whitley sounds like a man weathered and toughened by hardship--romantic, yearning, and determined. In this regard, Living With the Law shares its sensibility with another country-blues-inspired record, Exile on Main Street. Like Exile, it's the sort of music you play at the beginning of a day when you're going to have to deal with a lot of things you'd rather not.

Yet as much as I enjoy the record, I can't endorse it wholeheartedly. For one thing, the spooky details that give the record so much of its emotional weight--especially the vast, rolling sound on songs like "Big Sky Country," "I Forget You Every Day," and the title track--are clearly the work not of Whitley but of producer Malcolm Burn. Burn is an engineer for producer Daniel Lanois, who has made a cottage industry out of creating this kind of sonic ambience on such records as U2's The Joshua Tree, Peter Gabriel's So, and Bob Dylan's Oh Mercy. (Lanois, in turn, worked as an engineer for the granddaddy of ambient production, Brian Eno, on U2's The Unforgettable Fire.) The echoes, drones, and other flourishes running throughout the record, hallmarks of Lanois' style, amount to window dressing that Burn built around, not out of, Whitley's material.

The question of the sound's proprietorship added to my concern that Whitley might merely be aping the form and conventions of country blues for cheap effect, rather than making a genuine commitment to the music as a means of expression. The tendency to mishandle source material in this manner is a problem for many acts that traffic in traditional genres, especially the blues, and results in music that is either a heavy-handed distortion (Led Zeppelin), an empty affectation (the Cowboy Junkies), or both. For the most part, I'm reassured by the strength of Whitley's assets. Strip away Burn's studio constructions to get to the vocals and acoustic guitar playing at the heart of most of the songs and you still have a pretty solid record. Whitley has a strong instinct for sharp, lyrical slide guitar licks, a talent most evident on the radio-friendly "Poison Girl," and his finger picking is carefully articulated, delicate, and pretty. The man can sing a little, too. In its lower registers, Whitley's remarkably expressive voice is reedy and drawling like Leon Russell's. His falsetto has Aaron Neville's sweetness, and a sharp southern twang imbues his mid-range singing with tension and melancholy tenderness. His melodies climb and tumble like a craggy mountain landscape, and he handles them with sure, controlled phrasing, drawing out and bending notes, sighing, groaning, calling and crying out, rarely becoming mannered or excessive.

So there's no denying that Whitley has a firm grasp on his musical idiom. The question remains, to what end? It's not likely that Whitley, a white, late-20th-century musician who enjoyed modest stardom in Belgium (Belgium??) in the mid-80s, could pass as an authentic purveyor of country blues, which were born out of and intimately wed to the experiences of dispossessed black farmhands in the pre-World War II Deep South. Nor is it likely that he'd want to: treat a venerable music form too reverently and it becomes a museum artifact, dusty and lifeless. On the other hand, take too many liberties with it and you have, well, Led Zeppelin. But at least Led Zep had its own sound, one that wasn't credible as blues but that was ground-breaking rock music. Very few artists in contemporary pop music--Elvis and Chuck Berry originally, then Bob Dylan and the Stones, and more recently ZZ Top, Los Lobos, and Tom Waits when he's not screwing around--have been able to retain something of the blues' essential character while expanding on the music. Could Whitley similarly inhabit this musical form and, stripped of Burn's embellishments, create something fresh?

Whitley's uneven concert at the Park West a couple of weeks ago alternately frustrated and encouraged my hopes for him. It's illustrative of the distance between his technical skills and his vision that the evening's finest, most powerful moment was Whitley's performance of an old blues song. During his second encore, he played versions of two songs by the legendary blues singer Howlin' Wolf, performing them on acoustic guitar and accompanied only by harp player Peter Conway. The first struck me as a bit off-balance and uncertain, but on the second the musicians jelled, and Whitley offered up a rugged, forceful blues that, if it didn't match Wolf (no one can), at least didn't embarrass Whitley in comparison to him (no mean feat).

Aside from a Whitley-Conway duet on Robert Johnson's "Travelin' Riverside Blues" (which also was a bit ragged), the rest of the 16-song, 90-minute set consisted of the entirety of Living With the Law plus a pair of unreleased originals. The show's pace had a stop-and-start feel, in part because Whitley planned his songs with no apparent thought to building anticipation or excitement. It also may have been my personal reaction to the Park West's subdued decor--I can't help it, but every time I'm there I feel like I should be ordering chablis and listening to Marianne Faithfull sing torch songs. Whitley's best material, such as the concert opener "Kick the Stones," is the kind of raucous music best heard in a crowded roadhouse suffused with sweat, bourbon, and smoke. His appearance certainly suggested he's closer to the blues' blue-collar grit than, say, the Armani-clad Eric Clapton; with his sleeveless white T-shirt and black jeans, long, sinewy limbs, and almost waist-length mane of limp brown hair, he seemed very much a part of the white-trash milieu many of his songs describe. He could be one of the people in "Bordertown" who live "in the trailer park / With the Naugahyde law and the liquor shark."

As those lyrics suggest, Whitley's created a personal, contemporary iconography as a variant on the cheating women, hard-drinking men, and sexual boasting characteristic of traditional blues. In Whitley's case it's a vivid display of vaguely southwestern flotsam and jetsam. Like Tom Waits and Bob Dylan before him, he combines these rags and bones in juxtapositions that are both dazzlingly evocative and maddeningly pretentious. Consider, for example, these lines: "My secret Jesus / The good red road / On blood antenna / And dust radio." Blood antenna? It's a wonderful image, but what on earth are these lines supposed to mean? Other than the possibility that they're meant to describe some spiritual connection between himself and the land, I haven't a clue.

Musically, the weakest moments of Whitley's performance found him falling prey to the sort of trashy excess he'd managed to avoid on record. His first unreleased, unidentified song sounded like Van Halen mishandling a John Lee Hooker boogie as it exploded into squealing lead-guitar flash, yelled vocals, and violent, pointless instrumental collisions. At the outset of the throbbing "Long Way Around," Whitley seemed to get back on track, but before the song was over he took off again, flying into a drawn-out instrumental coda reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's extravagances. He stayed in the Jimmy Page vein one song longer, rushing through "Phone Call From Leavenworth." The pace gave his unaccompanied guitar playing a raw immediacy that almost overcame the song's garish melody. But an unclear mix frequently turned the music of Whitley's backing musicians into a guitar-bass-drums morass into which his guitar solos disappeared. Bill Ward's often overbearing drumming didn't help matters any.

The entire first half of Whitley's concert, in fact, provided only one completely satisfying performance, an impeccable rendition of "Poison Girl." With the song's irresistible guitar riff wrapped tightly around Alan Gevaert's bass and augmented by Louis Lepore's electric-guitar sheen, Ward's relaxed playing set the band on a smooth, steady roll; the whole thing had the feel of a drive along some swampy southern back road. After "Poison Girl," it wasn't until late in the set that strong music again emerged. Ward's drum flourishes worked well on quieter songs like "Dust Radio" and "I Forget You Every Day," adding a sense of urgency to the tender yearning of Whitley's vocals. The band nicely re-created the sweeping textures of "Big Sky Country," while their rhythmic strength and Whitley's best singing of the night gave the song a drive missing from the sleepy studio version.

During these later numbers, Whitley was able to make his heavy-metal predilections work, too. In addition to a second unreleased number, an effective stampeding blues, he delivered a crashing, surging version of "Bordertown." With "Bordertown" Whitley also displayed his penchant for ending his songs in a vast, turbulent expanse of distorto-guitar. Similar guitar mayhem simulated a hail of static on "Dust Radio" and left Whitley consumed in the churning anguish that underlies "I Forget You Every Day." The striking contrast between these delicate songs and their violent conclusions suggested the distance between a simpler, more comprehensible world and a dizzying, supercomputer-driven one, and many of Whitley's lyrics do the same thing. You could call him provincial, but when he proclaims "They got machines mama I can't figure," it sounds more like a gift of fresh perspective. Whitley's music speaks of the strangeness of the pervasive hypertechnology that our culture takes for granted, conveys a sense of it as alien and unnerving.

Exploring this tension may give Whitley his niche, allow him to create something new out of old sources. If he's going to merge Robert Johnson's musical sensibility with a modern rocker's, I'd prefer he stick with Unforgettable Fire-era U2 and recent Neil Young over Jimmy Page. Any poor white trash worth their mobile home, though, undoubtedly would rather have it the other way around. It'll be interesting to see whether Whitley keeps playing tony nightclubs or winds up in dives, and what direction his music takes along the way.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christopher Nofziger.

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