Not quite the usual blues
by Greg Ket
The sound was of rustic shacks, rusted barbed wire and dusty roads parched from the latest heat wave. The setting was Martyrs, a North Side club where it's possible to watch Linclon Avenue buses chug past big picture windows. The triumph of Chris Whitley's solo performance Monday was how he married these disparate visions into something well beyond cliche'. Whitley has the inflections of a blues singer, the plaintive yodel of a hillbilly. But he's not the least interested in reproducing the music of Appalachian balladeers or Mississippi field workers. Whether driving a National Steel guitar, a five string banjo or an amplified Gibson acoustic, Whitley taxed his tiny amplifier with sheets of sound that often chafed against the cruel yet sensual grain of his voice. The sound was based less on the sureness of chords or cleanly articulated individual notes than on droning, modal structures that evoked John Lee Hooker and Hound Dog Taylor. But if this was the blues, it was a postmodern version of it. This was a blues full of irresolution and fractured visions that flashed like daydreams and dissolved into nightmares -a "Narcotic Prayer" as one of Whitley's songs so aptly phrases it. Rarely did it crystallize into something as tangible as the wanton slaughter imagined in "Ballpeen Hammer." As the singer mumbled, "I can't wait to see them all falling down," his guitar swirled around him like a circling shark. Whitley shot to fame with his 1991 debut album, "Living With The Law," and has been living down its heavily processed, artificially atmospheric sound ever since on a series of fine recordings that have steadily driven away all but the most loyal members of his audience. When he delivered "Big Sky Country," one of the best-known tracks from the first album, he stripped its elaborate trappings down to a Spartan minimum: the stomp of his foot, the ache in his voice and a mere handful of notes on his guitar. It was in the songs from his latest album, the solo acoustic "Dirt Floor," that Whitley best articulated the uneasiness, casual madness and false hopes that define a life. The songs ended abruptly, the air full of speculation, regret and irresolution. Against this bleak backdrop, the tension between voice and guitar was oddly reassuring, as though living through the disappointment and dislocation was reason enough to keep plowing ahead. And plow Whitley did. His guitar labored to move the earth, his voice floated above, and the Lincoln Avenue buses rolled past, oblivious.