Chris Whitley caught my attention back in ’91 with a brilliant album called Living With the Law. He’s done a lot of things since. His sound has definitely gotten rougher, with stops at the industrial music shop. But he’s still rooted heavily in the blues. Thankfully, he’s not a slave to traditional blues and isn’t afraid to take things a little off the beaten path.
War Crime Blues is one of two new albums by Whitley (the other is Weed). You can only pick them up at shows and online. It’s just him, his guitar and a stomping board. His reinvention of the blues takes many different directions. But with Whitley, it’s not so much always the sound alone. It’s the sound and the feel. Sometimes (well, many times) it’s a feeling of dread. The de-tuned nastiness of “Ghost Dance,” mixed with the John Lee Hooker-style boogie, is indeed ghostly. His take on Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It” is filled with urgency and longing. “White Rider” with its tinny, odd, guitar sounds, creates an atmosphere you may not know much about, but you don’t want to be around that situation, if you know what I mean.
Whitley’s guitar playing is a wonderful mix, mostly old-fashioned country blues. His playing and songwriting are as exciting as anything I’ve heard in some time. His originals are tough and different, and his covers are unique and timely. Besides Reed’s tune, he also covers the Clash’s “The Call Up” and oddly enough, there’s a beautiful voice-only version of the classic “Nature Boy.” And Whitley sings it beautifully. Different, but not surprising. His vocals on everything range from ghostly to tough, and always fit the songs perfectly.
It’s hard to really catch the essence of what Whitely does in a review. He’s one of those guys, like Tom Waits, who has captured something in a bottle that nobody else has. It can be a challenging listen, but well worth it once you get there.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Aug. ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.