Friday, November 25, 2005

RIP Chris Whitley

I am truly Bumming... it is so sad. An edgy, out on the fringe of celebrity, real human being, who profoundly touched me with his music.
We are deeply saddened to confirm the passing of singer-songwriter,
guitarist, and recording artist Chris Whitley. Chris was a kind man and
immensely talented artist whose music has become an intimate part of many of
our lives. We are pained to acknowledge this loss and we grieve along with
those who knew and loved him and his music.
Brandon Kessler, Messenger Records

Chris Whitley (1960-2005): Singer/songwriter and guitarist Chris Whitley
passed away of lung cancer on Sunday, Nov. 20, in Houston, Texas, at age 45.
Chris is survived by his daughter, Trixie Whitley, 18, of Belgium, whose
voice could occasionally be heard in the background of Chris's records over
the years, as well as on stage with him. He is also survived by his brother,
singer/guitarist Daniel Whitley (who contributed guitar to several of
Chris's albums); a sister Bridget, and his father, Jerry Whitley, of New

A man of rare poetic honesty, Chris maintained a resolute musical integrity
throughout his career. His 12 albums, ranging from raw-boned folk-rock to
lush electro-blues, had the thread of intense emotion and constant invention
running through them.

Chris's hit debut LP, Living With the Law, came out on Columbia in 1991. His
final album, Soft Dangerous Shores, came out in June 2005 via Messenger
Records, the independent label he worked with most. The discs now seem like
spiritual/aesthetic book-ends. Both mix roots-rock grit with heat-haze
atmospherics and were produced/engineered by Malcolm Burn. If his beloved
debut still contains some of his best-known songs, Soft Dangerous Shores has
the elusive intertwining of organic and synthetic that Chris often held as
an ideal.

Christopher Becker Whitley was born Aug. 31, 1960, in Houston, to a
restless, artistic couple: His mother was a sculptress and painter; his
father worked as an art director in a series of advertising jobs. As a
family, they traveled through the Southwest, with many of the images the
young boy absorbed finding their way later into songs. He once described his
parents' music taste as formed "by race radio in the South." The real deal
-- Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf -- seeped into their son's soul, eventually
leading to Bob Dylan and Hendrix.

Chris's parents divorced when he was 11 years old, and he moved with his
mother to a small cabin in Vermont. It was there that he learned to play
guitar. Hearing Johnny Winter's "Dallas" was the seed for what would develop
as Chris's keening instrumental style. Inspired by the naked, crying sound
of the acoustic dobro in "Dallas," Chris bought a National steel dobro and
taught himself how to play the blues with a bottleneck slide. He quit high
school not long after, moving to New York City.

In Manhattan, Chris worked odd jobs and played on street corners in the West
Village. Then, the owner of a travel agency who had long loved his playing
offered Chris a free ticket to Belgium. During his sojourn there, he scored
some minor success by playing dance music in a group called Oh No Rodeo,
(met his wife and had a daughter ...)

Returning to in New York, Whitley was working in a picture-frame factory
when a photographer friend invited him along for an outdoor shoot. It was in
a park that Chris was introduced to Daniel Lanois, producer of such top acts
as U2 and Peter Gabriel. Lanois was a fellow guitarist, and his eclectic
tastes mirrored Chris's own. Lanois helped Chris get his initial deal with
Columbia to record his debut in the producer's New Orleans studio with
Malcolm Burn (a Lanois protégé, who went on to work with Emmylou Harris and
the Neville Brothers).

One of the all-time classic debuts, Living With the Law mines romance and
regret, beauty and brooding in a vein of archetypal Americana. Cinematically
produced, the album features fine detail players from the Lanois circle, but
the focus rests firmly on Whitley's fallen-angel falsetto and his rustic
virtuosity on National steel. "I Forget You Every Day" and the title song
are aching dust-bowl ballads. "Make the Dirt Stick" whines and moans like a
forlorn train whistle through the dark woods. "Big Sky Country" is a
yearning plea for wider horizons, borne along by the virtual
call-and-response of gospel harmonies.

Chris once said: "The songs on Living With the Law were fatalistic,
hopeless. My
marriage was breaking up. I was working in a factory. But desperation can be
a good impetus for writing songs." Those songs struck a chord. Rolling Stone
magazine praised Chris as "a visionary. . . a bona-fide poet." Another
admirer described Chris's songs as "haunting, like a Robert Frank
photograph." Director Ridley Scott chose a song from the album, "Kick
the Stones," for the "Thelma and Louise" soundtrack.

The four-year gap between Living With the Law and his sophomore disc sounds
more like 40, as he sought to break free of any business-as-usual
restrictions. With a psychosexual caterwaul redolent of power trios from
Cream to Nirvana, Din of Ecstasy won Chris new hard-rock
fans -- even as its mix of existential pain and poetic noise put off some
listeners more attuned to the bucolic beauties of "Big Sky Country." The
album's brazen masterstroke was to drag urban blues screaming into the late
20th century, conflating the spirits of Elmore James and Kurt Cobain with
such riveting standouts as "Narcotic Prayer."

Chris's Sony swansong, Terra Incognita, saw his sound continuing to combust
at the crossroads of Hendrixian drama and Delta soul. The album's ghostly
psalm "Cool Wooden Crosses" would become a staple of his solo shows. Chris's
departure from Sony could've been a defeat, but it ended up the best sort of
medicine, as he stepped up to the indie challenge. The little New York label
Messenger ended up selling more copies of his next album, 1998's Dirt Floor,
than Sony had of Terra Incognita.

The folk-blues songs of Dirt Floor were recorded in a single day at his
father's Vermont barn-cum-bike shop with producer Craig Street (known for
his work with Cassandra Wilson, for whom Whitley provided studio guitar).
Such sepia-toned songs as the title lament and "Scrapyard Lullabies" were
powered by just the time-honored tools of voice, guitar, banjo and rhythmic
boot. Recorded the next year in Chicago, Live at Martyrs' documents a great
night of solo Whitley, including his sharp-edged cover of Kraftwerk's "The

Around the same period, Chris also covered "I Can't Stand Myself" for a
James Brown tribute disc, setting off sparks against a beat-box. But he
painted a fully evocative picture of his influences with the 2000 all-covers
set Perfect Day. Teamed with the earthy, empathetic rhythm duo from
groove-jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, Chris not only beautifully
reanimated songs by Muddy Waters ("She's Alright"), Robert Johnson ("Stones
in My Pathway") and Bob Dylan ("Fourth Time Around"); he also cut to the
poetic heart of the Doors' "Crystal Ship" and Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" in a
way that rivals the originals.

Rocket House, a 2001 release on ATO, was perhaps the most ambitious of
Chris's career... from the buzzing electro-rock ... to the aching
dreamscape." A Sony Legacy compilation, Long Way Around: An Anthology
1991-2001, not only traces Chris's Columbia years; it includes the lyrical
Rocket House single "Say Goodbye" and highlights from Dirt Floor, as well as
previously unreleased demos and alternative mixes.

In recent years, Chris had found romance and inspiration in Dresden,
Germany. These days yielded some of his best work, with the albums Hotel
Vast Horizon and War Crime Blues, as well as Weed (a set of solo remakes of
early songs) and his only film score (for the German film Pigs Will Fly). In
particular, War Crime Blues is a solo electric masterpiece of sympathy and
antipathy by turns; such emotionally acute song suites are notably few and
far between in the post-Iraq invasion era. The heartbroken title track, the
raging desert storm of "God Left Town" and the Clash cover "The Call Up"
serve as both salt and salve for collective wounds.

Chris recorded Soft Dangerous Shores last year with a supple German rhythm
duo, bassist Heiko Schramm and drummer Matthias Macht. The album mixed
deep-blues feel and rich jazz harmonies with erotic rhythm beds and
electronic ambience. The idiom was the "universal blues," where the spirits
of Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix, Keith Richards and Kraftwerk bond. "The
blues sound different in different places," Chris said just prior to
release. "But on a lonely, rainy night -- whether in New Orleans or New York
or Dresden -- they feel the same."

Like most bluesmen of any era, Chris had his share of hellhounds on his
trail. He chased a lot of them down in song and on stage; other times,
demons got the best of him. But whether up or down in his career, Chris's
sweet, generous nature and pure sensibility earned him lifelong friends and,
as he put it, "guardian angels."

Although fully aware of his capabilities as a musician, Chris was a humble
man, always cognizant of the standards set by his peers and predecessors. To
sit with him backstage at a club or at a street-side café in the West
Village, it was soon apparent that he considered each admirer and
well-wisher who came up, known or new, something of a gift.

Chris recorded an a cappella rendition of the pop/jazz standard "Nature Boy"
as the haunted close to War Crime Blues. The words may not be his, but his
voice reveals wisdom hard-won over his time here: "The greatest thing you'll
ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return."
-- Bradley Bambarger


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