Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Chris Whitley 1960-2005

Last week, I learned of the death of the musician Chris Whitley. It was one of those moments shocked me out of my tasks. Whitley died on Nov 20 of Lung Cancer at the age of 45. He was a favorite of mine. Many people have that one band or musician that they champion and generally swear by vocally, and continuously to the annoyance of anyone in earshot.
"Dude, this guy is like, SO AMAZING," Whitley is pretty much such a one for me, although I don't think I geeked out to such a level that folks would avoid me (at least not for that reason.)
In his work, I found a quality of expression that resonated with certain intents that I had with own artwork. The turn of his lyrics and his gritty low down manner of playing the National Guitar, banjo, or acoustic created produced the sense of this one guy working through his vision in an earnest, vulnerable, and occassionally kitschy way.
His first album was his most polished, and well known, and I liked it, but it soon seemed a bit refined and flat in relation to his later albums. His second album, at first, seemed a drastic departure from the first album, with a lot of reverb and louder rock sensibility. But just under the surface you could easily hear the strain of his signature that would run through all of the albums regardless of their variations. This second album turned off many fans of the first, and this has served to be another point of appreciation, for me, as he would continue to make work that seemed most true to him, willing to experiment and play regardless of the sound that originally gained him attention.
I saw him perform live 3 or 4 times. Each time, he smoked incessantly on stage, and he was always so lean he looked nearly skeletal. But a really ripped skeleton. He had a very personable presence on stage, occasionally he would screw up, laugh at himself, and say that he needed to start that one over again. In the couple of time I saw him in Boulder, CO, his sets would focus on new work, and unreleased work. There would be constant shouts for songs from the first album, and he would oblige with a tweak version of the request. Once he performed "Phone call from Leavenworth" with such a feverish tempo which seemed at once a fuck you, and an exhilirating rush to perform.
It's just another one of those damn shames.

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