Chris Whitley is hard to pin down, and this is nothing new. The restless former street musician, now eight albums deep into a curious career, is in New York, but cannot be found -- not by publicists, relatives, managers or journalists. "I come from far away, anywhere I am is home/ if you could make me stay, you'd only always be alone."
The above is a line from Assassin Song, a major track of Hotel Vast Horizon, an intense, poetic album from last year that uses blues only as a base. Grunge-acoustics, thick, slow bass lines, banjos and brushed drums marked a sparsely produced, superior record. There is a jazz number -- titled Blues for André.
This year, singer-songwriter-guitarist Whitley has moved on to even simpler fare, releasing two albums available only at shows and by website ( ). War Crime Blues features new original material as well as covers (Lou Reed's I Can't Stand It and the Clash's The Call Up); Weed contains new stripped-down versions of previously released songs from the Whitley canon. Both were recorded in Germany, in rather low fidelity, live with no overdubs and with Whitley accompanying himself on slide-acoustic guitar. One track, Invisible Day, was recorded under a bridge, complete with ambient park sounds.
"I just wanted to do it on the Elbe River," Whitley explained, finally reached by phone. "Purely sentimental." The overpass over the Elbe was, according to the 43-year-old musician, the one bridge not destroyed in the Dresden bombings of the Second World War. Those bombings, a brutal Allied campaign against a city of no military importance, are the offences of War Crime Blues. Mistakenly, the album's title has been interpreted as a reference to much more recent misdeeds.
Whitley, a Texan by birth who has also resided in Mexico, Vermont, Belgium and New York, was living in Dresden at the time he wrote and recorded the new material. He found the memories in Germany of the bombings to be muted because of their links to the Nazi regime. "It was something for me, as an apathetic, insulated American, to get exposed to the realities of people who didn't even want to be conscious of it," Whitley said, softly, and in a smoke-dried drawl. "They didn't want to remember."
The War Crime Blues album was influenced also by French writer Albert Camus, and his long essay on revolution and human struggle The Rebel (1951), a work Whitley was reading at the time the record took shape. Ultimately, politics fell by the wayside. The album closes with an a cappella version of the jazz standard Nature Boy, with Whitley, in a style that recalls Chet Baker, singing "The greatest thing you'll ever learn, is just to love and be loved in return."
Whitley commented on the change in the album's direction. "I can't write about topics. I've tried to deliberate things, and they always suck.
"Issues are important, but it still feels like, to me, side effects. In this culture, in the United States right now, with so much shit to go through, we really don't talk about love and values like that. In the end, I hope the album reflects that."
Whitley hasn't performed in Toronto for a couple of years now. An appearance at this summer's ill-fated Toronto Blues Festival didn't happen, and on tour in 2003, he skipped over Toronto, hopping to an Ottawa gig straight from Buffalo, where he performed at Nietzsche's, a decades-old venue in Buffalo's regenerating Allen Street district. The club, with a bar in front and a small hall in back, retains a retro European beer-hall, bohemian tone. His concert there, which included Heiko Schramm on electric bass and Matthias Macht on drums, showed Whitley in customary passionate condition.
The mood was tense; the scene, somewhat cinematic -- grainy, black and white, with clouds of cigarette smoke and stark lighting. Whitley was smaller than I expected, shy, sinewy and focused. His slide-guitar playing, furious and idiosyncratic, recalled Jimmy Page and Robert Johnson. His singing, at times, lapsed into a Skip James falsetto.
Whitley recalled the show as one of the tour's best, describing its as "quiet, intense and pointed." Some of the other concerts were troubled because of his East German band-mates, who often became homesick. "It was crazy for me to bring them," Whitley said, in hindsight.
Whitley suffers the road better than most, and is usually in motion, his albums moving around in style as often as he changes mailing addresses. His stirring debut from 1991, Living with the Law, received critical acclaim for its modern, radio-friendly atmospheric blues. Din of Ecstasy, a bleak, grungy electric work from 1995, was not as well reviewed. The stripped-down acoustic blues of Dirt Floor came in 1998 and re-established Whitley as a top-shelf roots and blues player, and songwriter.
Hotel Vast Horizon was Whitley's first acoustic album recorded with a band, and while Weed and War Crime Blues are being compared to Dirt Floor, they are rougher and less warm than that album.
And the travels continue. Whitley has moved back to New York from Dresden, and is working on a new record with Malcom Burn, the Canadian producer on Living with the Law. Whitley dismissed the notion that reuniting with Burn was any kind of retreat. "It would be a total deliberation if we tried, and that doesn't interest either of us. We've both progressed."
Asked about the line from Assassin Song, Whitley admitted his itinerant ways have wounded people. "I wish I could have avoided it. Living a passionate life, there's a cost and a price, and you hurt someone else. I don't know how else to do it."
Chris Whitley plays solo acoustic shows at Montreal's Club One this evening, Ottawa's Rainbow Bistro tomorrow and Hugh's Room in Toronto on Thursday.