You know, the quieter Chris Whitley speaks and the softer he plays, the louder he seems. I've seen Whitley a number of times. He is mesmerizing. Shyly yet intently perched at the edge of the crowd, behind the throb of a lone kick-drum, he drags guttural tones from a rusty Dobro tuned so abstractly it could only make sense to him.
He is shy, enigmatic, mythical, and when he's on stage, anything else in the room ceases to matter. Here is an artist who embodies raw energy and a stripped-down delivery that exposes the bones of his ragged soul. Whitley's narcotic whisper is a flickering scream from his frail frame.
During a recent telephone interview, Whitley tends to shrug off questions with "I don't know," not because he's evasive, but because there is simply no pretense in his personality or his music. Though a magnetic stage presence, Whitley tries to de-emphasize himself, extracting himself from the proceedings.
Bluesy, folksy, and at the same time highly unconventional, Whitley's songs are loneliness and mortality personified. His new CD, Hotel Vast Horizon, opens without fanfare, only the shuffling of shifting musicians and the flint-click of a cigarette lighter. On this album, Whitley employs acoustic bass and drums beneath his woven meanderings and yet still manages to come off minimal and stark.
"I wanted to make something that was agitated and intense, without being loud or bombastic," he says. "I was trying to be more pointed. I wanted to make a record that was kinda fresh and modern somehow, without it being about the gear we used. I wanted it to be in the simplicity of the lyrics."
Even Whitley can be oblivious to his unconventional song structures.
"Some people just hear it at face value of the songs," he says. "I think as a musician I overlook that sometimes. I mean, it's not really traditional, like country forms of songwriting or something. It's not typical. It's just my songwriting."
Hotel Vast Horizon is so beautifully bare that Whitley's whispered words are virtually all that's there, offering little solace in their beguiling, bleak honesty. "I come from far away / anywhere I am is home / if you could make me stay / you'd only always be alone" he sings on "Assassin Song." Instrumentally, the band is bare-boned and reverent, playing so quietly at times you can hear the air in the room.
Whitley seems to be in an acoustic state of mind, and plans to record another EP this summer. "Something even more visceral for the fans," he says. Whitley has rocked hard and wailed a cappella, vacillating between apparent styles of roots rock. Whether it's dirt-floor acoustic, or break-neck slide raunch, the passion remains. Chris Whitley always rocks.
"I think because it's quiet, some people see it as being a passive thing," he says. "But it's not passive. If you play electric guitar, people think you're rockin' out. I guess I do, too."
Chris Whitley plays Friday, May, 23, at Nietzches, 248 Allen Street, Buffalo, at 8 p.m. Tix $10 to $12. 18+. 716-886-8539.
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