Today is Chris Whitley Tribute Day

In ’95, Whitley unleashed Din of Ecstasy, built around a thick sludge of electric guitars spraying feedback and noise. His droning voice was shoved back in the mix; the hooks were laconic, the lyrics bleak and abstract.

It was a masterpiece. I was pretty much alone in that assessment. The CD was ignored by radio and the record-buying public. A major tank job. To me it was hard to figure. The post-grunge period was in full flower, and Din was a serious helping of downcast space-blues and aggro rock that made Alice in Chains sound thoroughly pedestrian. (That may have been the crux of the album’s commercial failure.)

I know exactly one other person who has the same enthusiasm for Din of Ecstasy as I — and he happens to work under the same roof: CL marketing director Joran Oppelt. For that, I am naming him co-sponsor of Chris Whitley Tribute Day.

Much to my everlasting chagrin, I never saw Whitley perform — he didn’t tour in Florida much, and never performed in Tampa Bay — but I did chat with him once, at the South By Southwest Music Conference in, I think, ’97.

It was at a Sony party at Stubbs BBQ, and Whitley skulked around the room like an outcast. As it turned out, he pretty much was. A portion of our conversation went something like this:

Me: Chris, what happened with Din of Ecstasy? It’s a masterpiece and it stiffed. I could never figure that out.

Chris: Sony hated it. I turned it in, and pretty much everyone in the organization turned their back on it. The radio people wouldn’t push it; the publicists didn’t work it. It was doomed to failure. They wanted another Living with the Law. It was post-Nirvana. I couldn’t see doing Living with the Law redux.

Whitley released one more Sony album, Terra Incognita in 1997, and it had the whiff of compromise to it. He sort of split the difference between Law and Din.

The label ran him off after that disc, another dismal commercial failure.

Whitley went on to release 11 more solo albums, most on indie labels, and a couple of which were recorded when he had cancer. Rocket House (2001), where he messed around with electronic elements to generally good effect, came out on Dave Matthews’ ATO imprint. Perfect Day (2000) was a live-in-the-studio effort with Billy Martin and Chris Wood from Medeski, Martin & Wood.

His last recording was a fruitful collaboration with Australian singer/guitarist Jeff Lange, Dislocation Blues (released 2007). Whitley mans up on his vocals, but even so they sound forced and often feeble, which gives the performances an added poignancy.

To complement his recording career, Whitley barnstormed incessantly, playing mostly solo gigs on small stages where he would wow his audiences with a flurry of technique on guitar and Dobro. Again, I urge you to check out some of the Youtube clips on CLTV.

At a certain point, his disease forced him from the road and the stage.

Chris Whitley died quietly under hospice care. A fiercely independent, unique and ever-curious artist was gone. Not very many people viewed it as a major loss, but for us Whitley-ites, it was devastating. Still is, especially on the third anniversary of his death.

Chris Whitley died three years ago today. He was 45. It was unexpected, even to his diehard fans, of which I am one. I remember hearing about it and thinking “OD” — he was perilously gaunt and rumors of drug abuse swirled around him — then I was strangely relieved to find out it was lung cancer. He was a heavy smoker.

Whitley was a nomadic, uncompromising singer, songwriter and guitarist who, in my view, was an unheralded genius.

Today is Chris Whitley Tribute Day on Tampa Calling and the new CL Music website. I’m hoping to make some Whitley converts. Check out CLTV for videos of the master on stage. His Dobro playing alone is bound to blow you away.

Whitley’s first album, Living With the Law (1991) was his most successful. It had a desert blues feel, built around his acoustic slide work and haunting voice. The track “Kick the Stones” made a visceral imprint on the ’91 blockbuster movie Thelma and Louise. “Big Sky Country,” “Phone Call From Leavenworth” and other songs heralded a unique new voice that was poised for stardom.

Four years passed before Whitley released a follow-up, not exactly the best strategy for career momentum — but, as it turns out, that was just Chris being Chris.

About The Author

Eric Snider

Eric Snider is the dean of Bay area music critics. He started in the early 1980s as one of the founding members of Music magazine, a free bi-monthly. He was the pop music critic for the then-St. Petersburg Times from ‘87-’93. Snider was the music critic, arts editor and senior editor of Weekly Planet/Creative...
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