I Was There When: Chris Whitley Honored His Vermont Roots—More Than Once

The late Chris Whitley seemed to spend as much time touring Europe and Australia as the continental United States, which may explain why he never really expanded the breakthrough he experienced with “Poison Girl” in 1992. Yet his multiple visits to Burlington, Vermont, and its immediate vicinity are indicative of his roots in the Green Mountains: he actually lived in the southern part of the state at one point in his life. And despite (or perhaps because of) the fact he never made the same album twice, he certainly consolidated a loyal fan base prior to his sad demise from lung cancer in 2005. K.T. Churchill’s w/Toad  The Wet Sprocket 3/22/1992: Chris Whitley and Toad the Wet Sprocket’s appearance at the upstairs room on lower Church Street in Burlington may have been a concession to the convenience of promotion by the record label they shared, but the fact the minuscule venue was nonetheless packed with an enthusiastic audience on a Sunday evening was also evidence of the Queen City’s deep-seated loyalty to independent musicians. The lean native Texan betrayed absolutely no sense of hurry in the pacing of a diversity of tunes including Buddy Holly’s “Well Alright” (via Blind Faith?) or, in the form of “Bullfrog Blues,” implicit homage to another iconoclastic bluesman by the name of Rory Gallagher: Whitley’s camaraderie with those  in attendance was no doubt reflective of that with his tour-mates.
Higher Ground, Winooski, VT w/Gov’t Mule 10/02/99 : As if all too cognizant of the rabid affection Muleheads have for the object of their adulation, Chris Whitley wasted no time whatsoever during his truncated performance at the original site of this now-famous venue. Playing a kick drum with all the tense insistence he displayed in his singing, the man’s guitar work on “Living With The Law,” to name just one tune, was a wonder to behold in its pinpoint precision: as such, its pure unadulterated abandon became an object lesson in the utter lack of self-consciousness that can arise from performing solo. With an imaginative selections of tunes including his segue of “Phone Call From Leavenworth” into  Prince’s “Erotic City,” he left a growing crowd more than a little stunned. Higher Ground, Winooski, VT 09/06/00: Permeated with a sense of spontaneity rooted more in a seeming lack of rehearsal than the chemistry of the trio, a sparsely-attended date at the Onion City location of this venue was definitely the most erratic of Chris Whitley’s Vermont appearances. To be fair, however, expectations might’ve gone awry based on the elevated ambition and execution of his Perfect Day album. The bandleader’s trust in the spirit of the moment during those studio sessions—recording a collection of covers with bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin of MMW–no doubt translated into his abiding curiosity about that notion, the result of which was a halting live show. The trio including bassist Sebastian Steinberg and drummer Yuval Gabay, both of Soul Coughing, generated next to no momentum except the most fitful sort, even with (or perhaps because of) challenging song choices in the form of The Doors’ “Crystal Ship,” Bob Dylan’s “4th Time Around” and Jimi Hendrix “Drifting.” It would’ve been fascinating to hear a post-show take from Chris Whitley and company. Club Metronome, Burlington, VT,  02/18/04 & 9/18/04: Returning to the Green Mountains for gigs the third and fourth times—this apart from his actual residency in the southern part of Vermont earlier in life–Chris Whitley played Burlington Vermont’s tiny Club Metronome twice in 2004, the first show in February to a decidedly devoted audience. On the haunting “Hotel Vast Horizon,” to name just one number, the man was as focused and intense as anywhere else in the single set as his fingers flicked and curled their way along his various guitars to conjure the delta-blues rooted sound with which he’s most comfortable. In marked contrast to this appearance in the middle of winter, seven months later to the day, on an early autumn evening, Chris performed some of his more obscure material. Most likely he included the likes of “New Machine”  because he knew those loyal followers who inhabited the crowd was more than willing to listen to what he had to play (notwithstanding those loud-mouthed laughers relegated to the rear of the room by management). Whatever the rationale, it was a perfect treat to again hear Whitley’s rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around” and not just for the structure it brought to the set: the dry delivery of this tune—as well as Chris’ comments about the downstairs disco at Nectar’s–provided some insight into his psyche and, in turn, the formulation of his hour-plus set.  If Chris Whitley sought to prove himself to these small but willingly captive audiences he entertained in his one-time home state–plus suggest he deserved larger crowds–this singular musician and songwriter confirmed both notions with the understated panache he exhibited more often than not.

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One Response

  1. Would have loved to hear him with the Soul Coughing guys! Perfect day USA a
    magnificent LP. Just about everybody I play it for loves it.

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