All Music Guide
Stanton Swihart
Live At Martyrs'

Just a man and his guitar: that‰s all Live at Martyrs‰ is. Yet it is
perhaps the best way to hear Chris Whitley, separated from the studio
trappings that had a tendency to obscure and hinder his otherwise gutsy
folk-blues on previous recordings, and planted precisely in the element
that helped earn him his name in singer-songwriter and critical circles.
That is part of what makes the album such a welcome addition to the cult
musician‰s mixed catalog. Recorded in Chicago over a few nights in 1999,
Live captures all the things that make Whitley‰s music so enticing:
heated passion, raw intensity, and an indescribable urge toward both the
sacred and profane. It is, in fact, a logical extension from both his
outstanding debut album and his previous effort, Dirt Floor, the two
most lauded releases of his career. Stripped of commercial production
and all other confusing affectations, the recording allows his wonderful
songs and torrid delivery to take center stage. It might be instructive
to note that half the set list comes from the first two studio albums,
with only three deriving from the third and fourth albums. His second
and third albums received only lukewarm reviews, but the songs from
those efforts are given revelatory readings that far surpass the
original incarnations, almost sounding like entirely new songs. The two
new songs that are included prove strong additions to Whitley‰s
songbook, while his cover of Kraftwerk‰s ‹The ModelŠ is virtually
unrecognizable, and like nothing else in his canon. His guitar picking
on the song is almost banjo-style, and he sings with a smooth croon
instead of his normal cavorting vocals. In general, though, even as
spare as the recording is, it is highly atmospheric. Whitley‰s
electrified guitar can sound like warped metal (‹Dirt FloorŠ) or like
sepia-toned, foot-stomping country-blues, and on the new ‹Home Is Where
You Get AcrossŠ his playing is strikingly close to the phenomenal
picking skills of Leo Kottke. Much of the music is blues-based, and
certain songs still roll around in the mud and get rather grungy, but
surprisingly, in this naked setting, the songs take on a folk-like
dimension (albeit overdriven folk), with progressive songwriters from
the sixties such as Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley (or, for a more
contemporary comparison, Jeff Buckley) frequently springing to mind. It
is soulful stuff and gets at the essence of what makes Chris Whitley
such a thrilling musician when he is ‹onŠ: electrifying instrumental
abilities and shadowy, dark-edge story-songs that dig into your skin and
unravel you layer by layer. Although it is top-heavy on the first two
albums, Live at Martyrs‰ is possibly the best end-to-end effort in his
early catalog.