Chicago Tribune
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.