Doug Collette says it perfectly: “kindred spirits in a sustained moment of inspiration.” What better way to describe the magic that Chris Whitley and Jeff Lang conjured on Dislocation Blues.
Jeff and Chris met when one of Jeff’s friends recommended that he catch Chris’ set at The Basement, a blues club in Sydney, NSW, Australia, in 1993 (you can listen to a recording here). Recalling that show in a 2006 interview, Jeff said
“What I saw on that Tuesday at The Basement took my breath away. He had such a particular vision and his music was so much his own thing. My music was taking shape at that time [Lang was gearing up to record his first album] but he was much further down that road, the way he understood the language of the blues and incorporated it into something that was singular rather than recycling.”
The two might never have met if Chris had not, purely by coincidence, attended Jeff’s set at another club the next night and asked to meet him. The two men connected, and Chris asked Jeff to join him on stage during Chris’ gig the following night. Thus began a 12-year friendship as the two men met up whenever their paths crossed on tour in the US and Australia. As Noel Mengel noted,
It’s not surprising they had so much common ground, since they both shared a love of blues, a love of Bob Dylan, both played a mean slide guitar and both were single-minded musical adventurers with a deep understanding of musical history yet not content merely to re-create past glories.
Through the years, Chris had asked Jeff to play on some of his albums, but their schedules never worked out. Fortunately, the two toured the Pacific Northwest together in October 2004, placing them in the same place at the same time for over a week. Early in the tour, Chris suggested that they do an album together, and, during their downtime, they talked about their plans, including jamming in an Anchorage hotel on a free day (“Stagger Lee” figured prominently in this jam and was ultimately the first track they recorded the next spring in Melbourne).
Jeff thought the plan might be one of those pipe dreams that emerge in the moment but evaporate in the light of day. But then Chris planned a small tour of the East Coast of Australia for around Easter 2005. Jeff accompanied (both literally and travel-companion-wise) Chris on this tour, during which they continued their planning for the album. Playing together at the end of Chris’ sets also provided an opportunity to get in the groove of each other’s playing.
In his podcast discussing Dislocation Blues, Jeff noted that both he and Chris appreciate the early, primal, 1-chord blues of Muddy Waters, Little Walter, etc. Jeff especially liked Chris’ Perfect Day album, in particular his cover of Muddy Waters’ “She’s Alright.” Jeff thought the album had a “wonderful ambiance” with Chris’ “voice up front” and adopted Perfect Day as the “sonic ideal” for their collaboration, wanting to “capture the beauty in the way [Chris] sung”; “the spook factor” in his voice.
The remainder of this post provides music critics’ comments about the songs covered on Dislocation Blues: “Stagger Lee,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Forever in My Life,” “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” and “Changing of the Guards.” Also included are examples of the original songs and the DB covers. Generally, the critics commended Chris and Jeff for making each song their own, reinventing each and, as Jeff described Chris’ artistry, creating “something that was singular, not recycling.”
Mississippi John Hurt: Stagger Lee
Whitley and Lang, who produced the album and ensured its release in the United States, refuse to prettify their music but therein lies the very foundation of its beauty. The pair conjures an air of menace through the deliberate pace they apply to the traditional tune “Stagger Lee,” Whitley’s falsetto vocal and the electric slide guitar winding around the changes like a shadow of a stalker. [Doug Collette- All About Jazz]
Anyone who grew up with Professor Longhair’s version of “Stagger Lee,” for instance, will be hard-pressed to identify it here. Whitley and Lang take the popular piano boogie, flay it alive, and leave its skin twitching in the breeze, exposing it for the awful, bloody revenge tale it’s always been. This sort of dismantling and reduction sets the tone for all of Dislocation Blues; Whitley and Lang strip covers, old originals, and new collaborations down to their most essential bits, run them through a rusty old blender, and repeat. It’s intoxicating, and Lang deserves much of the credit for this. [Jeff Giles]
Whitley and Lang re-worked the traditional song “Stagger Lee” in an eerie rendition that sounds like some backwater soundtrack to an obscure documentary on voodoo in the Louisiana bayou. [James Calemine, Swampland Review, USA]
Right off the bat you know what you’re in for with a version of Stagger Lee that has to be heard to be believed. This is raw, in your face roots/blues sung and played with absolute, white-hot passion. The accompaniment is kept simple with the lead two on various guitars (nationals, lap steels, acoustics, etc) backed up by Grant Cummerford on upright bass and Ashley Davis on drums. [Craig Fenemor, AudioEnz, NZ]
Proceedings kick off on Dislocation Blues with the traditional “Stagger Lee,” and if for one moment you think you’ve heard too many takes of this piece, think again. The characteristic shimmering tension of acoustic steel ushers in Whitley’s quavering vocal eloquently “talkin’ about the bad man” over Lang’s amplified acoustic lap steel. The performance is anchored by a brutal bedrock provided by Lang’s Australian compatriots Ashley Davies on drums and the precociously talented Grant (“Squire”) Cummerford on upright bass. [Michael Hansen – Pure Music]
It kicks off with the probably the best version of the old standard Stagger Lee that’s been made since Mississippi John Hurt last had it on his set list. The song is completely reinvented, with a loping backbeat, upright bass, Whitley’s National and Lang’s lap steel. Whitley’s trademark delivery, drawled and thoughtful, then swooping into falsetto, delivers the tale as if he’d made it up and it had all just happened the night before. [Mark Harrison, Blues in London, 06/07/07]
The first track here, which I seem drawn to over and over, is yet another, yet a completely new, visitation to the blues classic “Stagger Lee.” Brooding, slide-tinged tones conjure a sepulchral mood; percussion throbs and penetrates, breathless vocals strain for the beauty and the brutal essence of the song. This hypnotic 71/2-minute dirge sounds like the first real “Stagger Lee” I’ve ever heard. After all, the tragic death of Billy Lyons was probably never meant to be party music. (Wikipedia offers an interesting history.) [Pittsburgh Post – Gazette – April 6th 2007]
If you’d like to know more about the back-story of this song and listen to other versions, check out this link to Pancocojams’ blog post [h/t to Dougie Bowne for the recommendation].
Mississippi John Hurt’s recording of “Stagger Lee”:
Lloyd Price’s very different kinda 50’s R&B version:
Chris & Jeff’s cover of “Stagger Lee”:
Robert Johnson: Hellhound on My Trail
The two uncredited tunes show up in one selection, and the pair brilliantly morph “Hellhound” into the Whitley tune, taking it out on an eerie whisper, full of darkness and shadow – much like death. This one is for the Whitley fans who dug War Crime Blues or Soft Dangerous Shores. Lang, of all the people Whitley played and recorded with, proved to be the most symbiotic of all. [Thom Jurek – All Music Guide]
The late Chris Whitley brings country blues into the 21st century on this album, but it is still appropriate that Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on My Trail” is included as a sort of mission statement. Except for invoking the titular demi-legba in his reworking of “Stagger Lee”, Whitley doesn’t deal too specifically with demons and loas. But the preternatural is a basic element of rural blues and the air of it here is unmistakable. [Rick Allen, HARP Magazine, USA, June 2007]
The hidden track, Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail” remains possibly the best version of the song ever recorded, besides Johnson’s original. This version was recorded in April 2005 on a Sydney radio show. [James Calemine, Swampland Review, USA]
There are two ‘hidden’ tracks at the end, and the first of these is a live solo recording [sic – not true! Both Chris and Jeff are featured] of Whitley doing Hellhound On My Trail. This is, as they say, worth the price of admission alone, and is a contender for best Robert Johnson cover of all time. This is Whitley the troubled soul singing about himself – no other explanation could account for the fact that it sounds like something he wrote himself, not an interpretation of someone else’s soul in turmoil. He can’t sit down and talk about it, he can only sing it out, the jagged guitar accompaniment the perfect background. [Mark Harrison, Blues in London, 06/07/07]
In the bonus track (Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound On My Trail”), Whitley’s parting voice, resonant yet scarred by time, indicates he kept on moving and was defiant to the bitter end, and Jeff Lang joins in and promises to keep the blues fallin’ down like hail. [Joe Ross – Folk and Roots (UK)]
Robert Johnson “Hellhound” (remastered):
Chris & Jeff’s cover of “Hellhound”:
Prince: Forever in My Life
What might seem an odd choice here is the inclusion of Prince’s “Forever in My Life.” Yet Whitley and Lang take this somewhat overstated expression of devotion and turn it into an ode to primal desire. Like the almost hidden track “Hellhound on My Trail,” performed by Whitley alone (sic), it becomes a personal statement that haunts long after the performance is over. [Doug Collette – All about Jazz]
They cover Prince’s “Forever In My Life”, and somehow it sounds like they have two small amps in a fishing boat as they play guitars while floating into the swamp’s heart of darkness. [James Calemine, Swampland Review, USA]
And on Prince’s “Forever in My Life,” Whitley comes as close to the roots-rock vibe of his astonishing debut, Living with the Law, as anything else he recorded. [Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers, Acoustic Guitar Magazine, USA]
Chris & Jeff’s cover of “Forever in My Life”:
Bob Dylan: Changing of the Guard & When I Paint My Masterpiece
“When I Paint My Masterpiece” is a jaunty romp that nevertheless betrays a certain nagging uncertainty through its mix of electric and acoustic guitars combined with the halting gait in the rhythm. “Changing of the Guard” finds Whitley and Lang trading verses of the Bard’s apocalyptic vision, the fluidity of their tradeoffs making it all the more regrettable the world will never get to see the two perform together live (though the two did do some selected dates together in 2004, early in their collaboration). [Doug Collette, All about Jazz]
Even “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is radically reinterpreted here – much as Dylan might do himself on-stage on any given night – and drenched in that sleepy narcotic cough-syrup blues played by latter-day Mississippi Delta dwellers such as Junior Kimbrough and David Malone. This is country music, taken from the extremes of Whitley’s native Texas and Lang’s wild and woolly Australia. “Changing of the Guard” is a different song entirely – slow, purposeful, almost a hymn of a country gospel tune.
If Dylan cares, he’s gotta be proud about turning this barn-burning apocalyptic surreal poem into a forbidding love song. [Thom Jurek, All Music Guide]
Throughout, Lang offers transcendent counterpoint to Whitley’s angel-flying-too-close-to-the-ground falsetto and twisted National Steel guitar virtuosity. This stuff sounds like 22nd century blues, and though all of it is outstanding, a pair of interpretations of Dylan tunes – a swanky “When I Paint My Masterpiece” and a wonderfully surreal “Changing of the Guard – rank among Whitley’s finest recorded moments. [Buffalo News, March 27, 2007]
If Whitley considered the gallows-humor irony of covering “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” it was only to give the song its sardonic due. Strutting and scornful, “When I Paint My Masterpiece” is the equal of Whitley’s two superb, poised Dylan covers on Perfect Day, but “Masterpiece” is the first time Whitley has borrowed Dylan’s 60s sneer, and it suits him surprisingly well. Almost as successful is the somber, funereal “Changing of the Guard,” marred only by Lang’s clumsy insistence, in the final verse, on the word “death.” Whitley, singing in a delicate, exhausted whisper, stumbles straight past. [Andrew Iliff, Stylus Magazine]
The record documents a collaboration between the Texan and Australian blues/roots master Jeff Lang. …. The result is a varied record that is honest and accessible; in matching their abundant virtuosity with an impressive depth of feeling, Whitley and Lang manage to deliver a record that demonstrates their mastery of their instruments as surely as it does their appreciation for the humility at the core of the blues. All of these qualities are on display on the record’s standout track, a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guards” on which the two perform as a duo, trading the song’s nine evocative verses in a delightfully natural and self-assured manner. Whitley’s dry vocals form a delightful contrast with Lang’s sweeter turns and some sublime guitar picking provides an ideal backdrop for Dylan’s poignant narrative. “Changing of the Guards” is not the only successful Dylan cover on this record. Whitley breathes new life into the considerably better-known composition “When I Paint My Masterpiece.” The first verse of this rendition exemplifies Whitley’s unique capabilities as a performer. The manner in which Whitley’s voice massages words like “Rome” and “rubble” perfectly reflects the undercurrent of exasperation that runs throughout this apparently hopeful song. As Whitley knew all too well, one can always look to the promise of a brighter future even as a bleak present stretches on and on. Davies’ rambunctious drum part further adds to this infectious spirit of restlessness. [Pop Matters, July 18, 2007]
The CD pays for itself just to hear the gritty country-blues version of Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece”. Whitley’s command over vocal phrasing often goes overlooked due to his guitar skills and vivid lyrics that hypnotize the listener. [James Calemine, Swampland Review, USA]
Regardless of the quality, emotional depth and impeccable playing on the original material on this recording, it is the two Bob Dylan covers that stand as the highpoints. A swaggering, loping take on the wonderful “When I Paint My Masterpiece,’ sees the players cut loose on a joyous romp. Whitley’s vocal is breathtakingly soulful and the powerhouse rhythm section is again relentless. In contrast, “Changing Of The Guard” is reverent, even gentle.
It is one of those special pieces of music where we hear kindred spirits at the top of their game, inseparable in their understanding and empathy for the song and uncompromising in their respect for the other’s emotions, integrity and musicianship. [Michael Hansen – Pure Music]
Two of the highlights are the Dylan covers, When I Paint My Masterpiece and Changing Of The Guard. In so far as one can imagine what goes on in the inscrutable Dylan mind, you’d have to imagine that he’d not only approve of these versions, he’d wish he could have made them. Dylan himself now appears to be in some sort of blues poet mode, and what Whitley and Lang do is to turn these songs into brooding blues laments. On the latter, they trade verses, and they inhabit the song as if it belonged only in their world, not so much a cover as a brand new thing. [Mark Harrison, Blues in London, 06/07/07]
I’m equally impressed with “When I Paint My Masterpiece,” heretofore classic Dylan. Whitley gives it a similarly “Stagger Lee” spectral interpretation, and once again makes you feel that this was the way the song was meant to be heard. Lang’s mournful harmonies add depth and meaning. Plus you can actually understand the lyrics. Whitley’s and Lang’s vocal interplay as they move through the songs illustrate complimentary voices, minds and moods. On Dylan’s “Changing of the Guard,” they are haunting reminders of the pleasures of the human voice as emotional instruments. [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 6, 2007]
Bob Dylan’s “Changing of the Guards” (studio version):
Chris & Jeff’s cover of “Changing of the Guards”:
Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Y4B4oKOyHw
Chris & Jeff’s cover of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”:
Dislocation Blues Credits
- Chris Whitley: National and bottleneck guitars, foot, vocals
- Jeff Lang: amplified acoustic guitar, chumbush, lap steel, loops, fretless electric guitar, fretless bango, bass pedals, foot, vocals
- Grant Cummerford: upright bass, electric bass, bowed bass
- Ashley Davies: drums, percussion (including a BBQ!)
- Produced by Jeff Lang
- Recorded at Adelphia Studios, Melbourne, Victoria (AUS) by Mick Wordley (Lang recalls “a wonderful sounding room, with a great recording engineer in a no-stress environment.”)
- Mixed by Jeff Lang and Mick Wordley at Mixmasters, Adelaide
- Mastered by Tony Mantz at Deluxe Mastering
- Album designed by Myf Walker
- Photography/Super 8 by Mick Wordley and Myf Walker