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Music Preview: Chris Whitley takes off with his best record in a decade

Friday, October 26, 2001

By Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

Chris Whitley's music, like his life, is hard to pinpoint to a particular time or place. The musician spent his childhood on the move, being carted off to homes in Texas, Oklahoma, Connecticut and Mexico.

Chris Whitley

WHERE: Rosebud, Strip.

WHEN: Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.

ADMISSION: $12; 412-323-1919.


Upon dropping out of high school, he went from playing his National steel guitar on New York streets to playing in techno bands in Belgium.

So, it's no surprise that Whitley's recording career would be similarly nomadic. He grabbed our attention in 1991 with "Kick the Stones" from the "Thelma and Louise" soundtrack and "Living With the Law," a stunning debut with a dusty Southwestern blues feel and a guitar sound that's twangy and shimmering like John Hammond toying with the Edge's equipment.

But Whitley didn't linger in the burgeoning alt-country scene. Four years later he followed with "Din of Ecstasy," then "Terra Incognita," records that found Whitley, in the grunge era, tripping out on the feedback and metallic stomp of Zeppelin and Hendrix. In '97, he stripped it bare with "Dirt Floor," an acoustic set recorded in one day with guitar and one mike.

Based on his declining sales and profile, Whitley clearly wasn't reaching those fans who were looking for another "Living With the Law." He's not even sure how he would deliver that if he wanted to.

"For me, I have a hard time imagining, I don't know what I would get from ['Living With the Law'] that I would do," he says. "I always feel like there's a kind of thematic thing with my records, and that one had a specific sound at a specific time. It's 10 years old now and there's this nostalgia for it."

Rather than getting nostalgic, Whitley surges forward with "Rocket House," his first full-fledged record in five years and his best in 10. Whitley's rich falsetto is in top form, the melodies open like big gorgeous skies and the full effect is like a bunch of trip-hop musicians crashing the "Law" sessions.

The cast list includes the likes of textural producer/drummer Tony Mangurian (Luscious Jackson), keyboardist Stephen Barber (Shawn Colvin) and turntable artist DJ Logic, with cameos by Whitley's 14-year-old daughter, Trixie, on the hypnotic "Chain" and, on the radio-ready "Radar," Bruce Hornsby and Dave Matthews, who owns the ATO label it was released on.

Whitley says the writing was even integrated into the production.

"We just did a lot of stuff live and I wrote stuff in the studio and just chopped it up," he says. "We made the production part of the writing process. For me, to use the machinery, that would be a little more honest."

As Whitley stops by Rosebud on a solo tour before a larger band trek, "Rocket House," released in July, is still struggling for takeoff. Whitley says it's a rough time for artists who are crossing genres.

"It's just a saturated culture, people tend to market stuff very specifically because we have so many choices," he says. "I think in the '60s and '70s, not that I think it was necessarily a better time for music, but there was less available, so you got more diverse, eclectic records. Like Beatles records -- from 'Helter Skelter' to 'Ob-La-Di.' "

Whitley, now 40, realizes there are probably easier routes for him to take. He just doesn't care for them.

"I guess even more traditional blues stuff is easier to sell," he adds. "I could never be satisfied with that. But I don't blame anyone for it."

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