2. Living With The Law
3. Big Sky Country
4. Kick The Stones
5. Make The Dirt Stick
6. Poison Girl
7. Dust Radio
8. Phone Call From Leavenworth
9. I Forget You Every Day
10. Long Way Around
11. Look What Love Has Done
13. Excerpt 2
One of the most eclectic artists that I've come across over the years is a fella by the name of Chris Whitley. Upon hearing his Living With The Law album, I was struck by the freshness he brought to the blues, almost as if this were a new template for that style of music.
Whitley, who grew up in Texas, employed various open tunings and what I would call, a jazz player's sensibility in his approach to playing blues music. Besides being gifted with a sure hand on the guitar, Whitley sang with a yodel-like quality similar to that of Hank Williams Sr. Whitley's voice also contained a raw-boned huskiness that was perfectly suited for the type of new blues he was creating within the context of his music. His ability to reinvent the blues genre brought him to the attention of the alternative rock community and during his career he recorded with such artists as Dave Matthews, Bruce Hornsby and two of the guys from Medeski, Martin and Wood.
While Living With The Law, which was released in 1991, Whitley began to search for different ways to play his special brand of blues music. Over the following years, Living With The Law was considered a "lost" classic by many in the music community. Produced by Daniel Lanois & Malcom Burns (who both had worked with U2 and Peter Gabriel), this record has a dense layered sound that reinforces Whitley's stark blues songs. One element I found particularly moving was how several songs, such as "Poison Girl" and "Big Sky Country", use a drone-like sound to great effect which in turn gives support to the open tunings that Whitley was using.
Over the course of his career which spanned 25 years, Whitley released 14 albums. Sadly, Whitley passed away in 2005 due to lung cancer. Since then, his music has begun to receive wide acclaim.
From the Inner Views website:
"Conveying emotional intensity, urgent desires and gritty reality were always at the core of singer-songwriter and guitarist Chris Whitley’s edgy folk-blues output. Those elements permeated his 2004 release War Crime Blues even more deeply. That’s not surprising given the album found Whitley, who died of lung cancer in 2005, passionately responding to the military aggression that continues to play out across much of the world. It also offered his perceptions of what it’s like to be someone from America who lives in Germany, and the wartime atrocities both countries have perpetrated. Entirely comprised of his raw, seductive vocals, stunning acoustic guitar work and multi-layered lyrics, the album represented one of his most direct, poignant and powerful statements.
The sense of dislocation found in much of Whitley’s music also stemmed from his personal history. Born in Houston, Texas, Whitley lived a nomadic childhood, moving frequently across the Southeastern United States. At age 11, he relocated to Mexico with his mother after his parents divorced. They moved to Vermont in 1975, where at age 15, he began playing guitar in a local band that drew inspiration from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Bob Dylan. In 1977, after quitting high school a year before graduating, Whitley journeyed to New York City and performed as a street busker.
Looking for new musical avenues, he relocated to Belgium in 1981 and became part of that country’s synth-pop scene. Whitley performed with regionally-acclaimed Belgian acts including Kuruki, Nacht und Nebel and A Noh Rodeo. He wrote and performed music that straddled funk, rock and blues, and enjoyed modest success before returning to New York City in 1988. Renowned producer Daniel Lanois took an interest in his music shortly thereafter and helped him sign with Columbia Records. Whitley’s solo debut, Living with the Law, was released in 1991. It was an adventurous blues-rock record full of rich colors and delicate atmospheres. Though the record was a critical and commercial success, Whitley didn’t feel it accurately mirrored his true leanings. For his 1995 follow-up, Din of Ecstasy, he chose to solely follow his muse. The eloquently dissonant record was steeped in aggressive, distorted guitar and had a darker, more brooding vibe than its predecessor."
All Music Review by JT Griffith: “Chris Whitley's 1991 debut, Living with the Law, was recorded in Daniel Lanois' New Orleans mansion...The sublimely dark, creepy, and possessed collection sounds completely out of place for the era of slick pop/rock like Milli Vanilli. The tortured album is rich with old-style sounds, from slide guitars to pedal steel. Living with the Law has a full, ambient feel that transports the listener into the recording. Whitley humbly (and falsely) claims, at the beginning of the record, that God knows it's all been done. These 12 songs attempt an original look at an honest style and passionate mood that is lacking in much of rock music. Whitley sings of drug abuse, alienation, failure, and loneliness with a Delta blues flavor. An exceptional and mesmerizing debut, one with the potential to inspire all who hear it. (This release is also fascinating for those who enjoy Rocket House. Influences on the 2001 album can be heard throughout Living with the Law, released a decade earlier.) An album Robert Johnson may have recorded, were he still alive.”
If you're a blues fan and haven't heard this record,
find a copy today and give it a listen.
FALLEN ANGEL: THE LIFE & DEATH OF CHRIS WHITLEY
1991 CHRIS WHITLEY INTERVIEW
CHRIS WHITLEY: A BRIEF RETROSPECTIVE
BLUES YOU CAN USE
MIND SMOKE DOWNLOAD STORE
Compact Discs will be available very soon