Monday, March 5, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: Chris Whitley, Sacred and Profane

From the time of his spectral first U.S. release "Living With The Law" Chris Whitley seemed to consort with ghosts. His singing frequently leaped up in the midst of a phrase into an eerie falsetto that recalled the great Delta bluseman Skip James. His chosen instrument was the metal-bodied dobro a nearly extinct artifact of the pre-amplification era of music. The instrument came to life at the caress of his slide and cried and whined in a way it only does for a gifted few. His songs tended toward a private world, artfully suggested more than directly spoken, embodying the old blues tension between the holy and the profane. He was always the next big thing, and numbered Dave Matthews and Bruce Springsteen among his admirers.(On his early acoustic demo of "Countin' on A Miracle" you can hear Bruce channeling Whitley.) When Whitley came in October of 2004 to play in Anchorage, he looked like a man with one foot in the grave, haggard and thin as a whip, but he sang with fervid beauty. In a year he was dead of lung cancer. "At the border town they shook my hand, Was the gateway to some other land. Now the border town is the great divide, is a gateway to some other side."

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