In Cleveland last fall, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame held a tribute to blues guitarist Robert Johnson. Of the renowned blues, pop, folk and jazz performers at two concerts that weekend, Chris Whitley was the only discernible musical and spiritual link to the fabled bluesman. The powers that be could have scrapped the bloated, more than three-hour Severance Hall affair — with the Allman Brothers playing straight-ahead versions of their own songs and singer Cassandra Wilson “interpreting” Johnson and repeating that she hailed from Mississippi as Johnson did — and condensed the ordeal to just Whitley’s 30-minute performance the previous evening in the Odeon, a small club. ~Aaron Beck, “Whitley Evokes Magic of Great Bluesmen,” Columbus Dispatch, 1999/03/28
With seven years to live, he looked dead-man skinny in a white T-shirt; a black bowler made him look like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange. He shook the strings of his National Steel guitar into an odd, atonal, broken account of Johnson’s most resistant composition, and made you believe he understood it from the inside out. “What then are the situations, from the representation of which, though accurate, no poetical enjoyment can be derived?” Matthew Arnold wrote in 1853. “They are those in which the suffering finds no vent in action; in which a continuous state of mental distress is prolonged, unrelieved by incident, hope, or resistance; in which there is everything to be endured, nothing to be done.” Whitley seemed to take the song as close to that abyss as he could with[out] disappearing into it. ~ Greil Marcus, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, pp. 194-195.
Talkers and players gathered at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for a celebration of the ’30s Mississippi bluesman, and this documentary includes too many fat white guys with nothing to say. But there are lucid, stirring passages from keynote speaker Peter Guralnick; there is Johnson’s childhood friend Willie Coffee, crying over his memory of “Sweet Home Chicago” (“I don’t like to talk about him too much”). Alongside any number of sclerotic or florid readings of hallowed Johnson tunes by singers black and white, there’s skinny white guy Chris Whitley’s queer, atonal revision of the previously uncoverable “Hellhound on My Trail,” ludicrous in its first notes and a dead man walking, a thing in itself, by its end. And in the power trio Gov’t Mule there are fat white guys slamming their way through a don’t-let-it-end-yet assault on “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day” — with the Rolling Stones’ “Stop Breaking Down” and Cream’s “Crossroads” the most exciting claim on a Johnson song I’ve ever heard. Don’t go looking to Gov’t Mule’s own records, or Chris Whitley’s, for anything similar; their performances here take place outside their careers. ~Greil Marcus, “Real Life Rock Top 10,” Salon, 2000/02/07
“So we show up on Friday in Cleveland, head over to the venue, just the two of us, bands and crews and gear swirling all round, just like it always was at these festival types of shows, and off to the side, just me and Chris hanging out, just a guitar, the trusty boot board, and a Beta 58 vocal mic to worry about. We get bumped from sound check, like we always did … so no one hears Chris play until we get called to the stage to perform. Now, as anyone who’s seen the film of this performance knows, Chris turned in a rendition of ‘Hell Hound’ that night that was unforgettable. He was Robert Johnson that night. One man, one guitar, one boot, and he tore it up. As we were leaving, the legendary Robert Lockwood Jr. pulled me aside and asked if I worked for Chris. I replied that I did, to which he said, ‘Tell that boy he plays like three men.'” Ken Helie, CW Tour Manager (see John Mayer’s tribute to Chris in which this anecdote appeared.)
Chris’s performance of “Hellhound on My Trail” as presented in the Robert Mugge movie, Hellhounds on my Trail: The Afterlife of Robert Johnson
For comparison, consider this earliest known performance at Trax, Charlottesville, VA 1992-11-20:
A short set of Chris’s performance at The Odeon (Cleveland, OH), 1998/09/26:
Chris jams in a hotel room with Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman, and Jeff Clemens on Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”:
Other recordings of Chris covering RJ songs:
Some ATCW Reactions to the Hellhounds video
Tyler Boley: I always thought Chris was making some intentional points at this event, for that audience that has built such a mythology around Johnson and the blues. It’s not a piece he performed elsewhere to my knowledge. Also, it’s not the usual visceral absorbed flow when he’s at his best. He keeps throwing in quite phenomenal deviations, just as left turns, to undermine the blind devotional approach. There’s everything from noise, to very jerky plays with timing that messes with the groove, to extremely modern atonal departures, flippant showoffs, not to mention his extremely distorted tone you can barely detect the notes through. It’s like he’s saying “Sure, there’s all that, but things moved on, a LOT, and I’m not in that box, so here’s a few lessons for you to digest. Hope your ears don’t hurt. Bye.” But we all see and hear what we want to. It’s like an education at a high level, there are short sections in there that are mere mentions of kinds of music you could spend years studying. It’s quite amazing.
Paul Bradway: I have to also think there was a little… “Here you go … let’s see how you like this one.” The look he gives towards the end seems to support it. But that’s just a guess, being I have no background other than here is a room full of people with staff, roadies, mangers, helpers, 40 thousands bits and pieces of equipment, and in walks Chris, with a boot box, and a guitar.
Brent Johnson: I love this cover, and my favorite Robert Johnson cover of all time is the version of Stones In My Passway from Perfect Day. Anybody, given enough time, can copy a song note for note. What Chris did was take those songs and make them his. He played the emotion of the song instead of playing the notes. I’ll take that every time over a musical Xerox machine.
Full post & comments here.
Full Info about the DVD (from deaddisc.com)
Hellhounds On My Trail: The Afterlife Of Robert Johnson
This documentary about Robert Johnson includes performance footage of Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman and segments from an interview with Bob Weir.
This documentary was produced as part of a week-long tribute to the legendary bluesman at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
- Producer – Jeff Sanders, Robert Mugge
- Executive Producer – Michael Olivieri
- Director, Editor – Robert Mugge
- Cinematographer – Larry McConkey
The performances on this release are:
- Hellhound on my Trail – Alvin Youngblood Hart
- Walkin’ Blues – Guy Davis
- Rollin’ and Tumblin’ – Rory Block
- Partial performances of Kindhearted Woman, Steady Rollin’ Man and others – Robert Lockwood Jr. (stepson)
- Love in Vain Blues – Keb’ Mo
- Walkin’ Blues – Sonny Landreth with the Billy Hector Band
- Terraplane Blues – Peter Green & Nigel Watson
- I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom – Joe Louis Walker & Billy Branch
- Hellhound On My Trail – Chris Whitley
- Rollin’ and Tumblin’ – Govt Mule
- Crossroad Blues – David “Honeyboyy” Edwards
- Come On In My Kitchen – Tracy Nelson, Marcia Ball, Irma Thomas & Roy Rogers
- Ramblin’ On My Mind – Roy Rogers
- Walkin’ Blues – Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman & Govt Mule
- Sweet Home Chicag – Robert Lockwood Jr., David “Honeyboy” Edwards & Henry Townsend
- Love in Vain – G.Love & Special Sauce
This documentary has been released on video and DVD.
The DVD extra include:
- Production Notes
- Additional audio tracks;
I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom – Guy Davis
Terraplane Blues – Rory Block
Traveling Riverside Blues – Peter Green & Nigel Watson
I’m A Steady Rolling Man – Peter Green & Nigel Watson
Terraplane Blues – Peter Green & Nigel Watson
Honeymoon Blues – Peter Green & Nigel Watson
Love In Vain Blues – Keb’ Mo’
Cross Road Blues – Rob Wasserman
32-20 Blues – Govt Mule
I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom – Joe Louis Walker & Billy Branch
Walkin’ Blues – Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman & Govt Mule
Walkin’ Blues (Hotel Jam) – Bob Weir, Rob Wasserman, Chris Whitley & Jeffrey Clemmens