Time Out New York
Wetlands; Wednesday, April 22
When I find myself in a club where a singer-songwriter is playing an acoustic guitar and intoning lyrics of desperation or unease, I'm often uncomfortable. This is not because of the frightening, intense emotional outpouring generally aspired to by singer- songwriters, which is intended to prompt souls such as myself to cower and whimper, "I can't handle how real this is!" What I really can't handle is the absence of a beat, I must have a drum or some kind of percussive element to convey an urgency that I can feel. Chris Whitley usually performs solo, equipped with a Dobro (a guitar made of steel, rather than of wood), and the one thing that makes him more compelling than 95 percent of those who similarly present themselves: his foot. While he coaxes shivery blues-inflected laments out of the ether and moans for redemption, his foot is close-miked. It keeps exquisite time, definitely doing what echno-heads call moving air. When I caught him at the Knitting Factory a while back, Whitley would have held my attention easily enough with his eerie, modal blues meditations, but his big, steel-toed beat left me rapt. "Foot stomp" is included, alongside banjo, vocals and guitar, in the credits for Whitley's recent, recorded-in-one-day Dirt Floor (Messenger), his first record away from the Sony corporate umbrella. Compared to its predecessors -- Living With The Law was hampered by Daniel Lanois's production; Din of Ecstasy was immersed in festering distortion -- Dirt Floor is unadorned and is an accurate taste of his live performances. Whether his foot creates a heartbeat ("Indian Summer") or a palpable thump ("Ball Peem Hammer"), it ensures that a sure pulse animates even the most barren songscape. Man cannot live by mood alone. Man must have movement.