This is my ‘desert island’ CD. It appeared as if a missive from ‘the other side of the world‘ one month short of 3 years after Chris’s passing. And it contains the Chris Whitley track I’ve probably played most often over the more than a decade since I first purchased it: Chris’s cover of JJ Cale’s “Old Man and Me.”
Containing 18 of the 24 songs that Chris played in a set for ‘Sparkasse in concert,’ at Radio Bremen (Sendesaal, Bremen, Germany), it captures Chris at what I have come to view as the epitome of his prowess with his excellent, deep, expressive voice and strong but restrained guitar. Thom Jurek, reviewing the album for allmusic.com, expressed the majesty and accomplishment of this album better than I can, so here’s his full review.
On Air: Live Review
by Thom Jurek
There are 17 [sic 18] cuts on this set, they range in origin from material he recorded for his Sony records, to killer blues and rock covers arranged and performed as only he could: enigmatically. The recording quality is flawless, the vibe in the room and its sonics are picked up perfectly, and Whitley’s otherworldly engagement with his guitar and voice are captured intimately and forcefully. Performed in this way, his own vintage tunes carry the immediacy that they were written with, they contain a definite raw psycho-sexual spiritual magnetism, whether it’s “Kick the Stones,” the spooky blues of “Clear Blue Sky,” “Shadowland,” or “New Lost World,” or “Hotel Vast Horizon,” just to name a few. This vision of his, with the world as a darkly magical place for caged and restless spirits to wander through and connect with one another in any way they could, was also revealed in his covers. There are a number of them here, including Muddy Waters’ “Light Rain,” the Doors’ “Crystal Ship,” Bob Dylan’s “Fourth Time Around,” and Buddy Holly’s “Well…All Right.” But the real deal here is that Whitley made no distinctions — in performance at least — between his own songs and those he loved. He performed them all with a fervent desire to reveal their meanings, to release them to his audiences through the ritual of playing live. What On Air also offers is yet another view of the sheer originality and technical acumen Whitley possessed as a guitarist. One of the reasons that his albums were all over the place stylistically and in terms of production is because he understood exactly what he was doing as a player. He could lay seven different guitar tracks down on a given song in the studio, because when he played live he could find a way to pull it off without gimmicks. All of Chris Whitley’s music was rooted in Delta and Texas blues, no matter how it eventually came off on his studio recordings. Here, that’s obvious, whether he’s rattling a slide as he plays a completely separate melody line with his other fingers, or whether he’s crooning a spooky, seductive ballad. It all sounds like Robert Johnson meets Blind Lemon Jefferson meets the drone of Lightnin’ Hopkins meets the bravado and roar of Muddy Waters and the sly humor of Dylan wrapped in the apocalyptic visions of Bill Fay.
For Whitley’s fans, this is essential listening; it’s the measure of the artist in a sympathetic venue, allowing all of his prodigious gifts to surface. On Air will edify anyone who takes the trouble to encounter it. Those of us who followed his work can only hope this is the first of many such tapes to surface.
Unfortunately – one might say criminally! – that’s the only review of On Air I could find. But, if you want to read what listeners had to say about the album, check out the reviews on Amazon. A few excerpts:
The first time I heard it, it seemed subdued, especially compared to “Live at Martyrs” recorded four years earlier in Chicago. Repeated listening reveals that it is quite intense, but less wild — Whitley is in a more introspective mode, but his singing and guitar playing burn with a steady flame.
This album … is an incredible representation of Whitley’s innate, idiosyncratic talent that was on display that night. …. Whitley was an otherworldly talent and this is a perfect demonstration of such.
My take on this set is that Chris somehow sounds more willing to take risks with the execution of the material compared to some other solo outings (as in Scrapyard Lullaby, for example), and anytime he goes back and forth between gritty and ethereal it’s a fully intentional, controlled statement. He’s spot on here, he knows where he’s going, nothing’s a mistake.
Chris Whitley … was an incredible guitarist, vocalist and songwriter willing to walk away from riches and a carefully crafted record company image to maintain the integrity of his music. …. This album contains what in my opinion was Whitley at his best, just his voice, his National Acoustic and a miked foot stomp pedal. The 18 tracks are some of his best original work, stripped to the bone, with several cover songs intermingled. …. There is a bittersweet quality to this album, it is so good it reminds long time fans like myself of what we have been missing since Whitley’s untimely death.
You can listen to and download the full 24-song set from the Live Music Archive. So good that one can’t help but want more ….