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
A short set of Chris’s performance at The Odeon (Cleveland, OH), 1998/09/26:
Chris jams in a hotel room with Bob Weir and Rob Wasserman on Robert Johnson’s “Walkin’ Blues”:
Other recordings of Chris covering RJ songs: