Chris Whitley is that rarest of modern songwriters, singers and guitarists: He makes dense, otherworldly art for a small but devout audience, and seems quite happy to do just that.
Loved by critics from the time of his 1991 debut release, "Living with the Law," Whitley's songs blend painterly abstraction and surrealism with raw, rustic earthiness. The end result is a sound at once startlingly original and hauntingly familiar.
A remarkable vocalist, Whitley drifts languidly between an assured, bluesy narrative voice and a gorgeous falsetto that sounds like it's coming from the mouth of a ghost, all breath and no corporeal presence.
It's not just the critics who love Whitley. A quick scan of the "reader ratings" section of RollingStone.com shows that all seven of Whitley's releases -- in addition to "Law," "Din Of Ecstasy" (1994), "Terra Incognito" (1997), "Dirt Floor" (1998), "Live at Martyr's" (1999), "Perfect Day" (2000) and "Rocket House" (2001) -- have received a minimum of four stars from the available five-star scale.
Earlier this month, Whitley released the stark, lyrical "Hotel Vast Horizon," which he recorded in Dresden, Germany, his new home after more than a decade in New York City. It's another absolute classic in Whitley's ever-growing canon. Whitley and his band -- bassist Heiko Schramm and drummer Mathias Macht -- make a rare area appearance at 9 tonight in Nietzsche's, 248 Allen St.
So how did Whitley end up in Dresden after more than a decade as a New Yorker?
"Well, it was for a woman," he laughs over the phone from a tour stop in Indianapolis. "I'd been kind of going back and forth for a few years. Then suddenly, I was off the road for six months -- the longest I've ever been off the road. And I moved there, met the musicians I'm playing with there, and put this record together there. It's home now, but still, I always feel like I'm kinda traveling around."
Like much of what Whitley has to say, this is a serious understatement.
Born in 1960 to artistic parents -- his father worked in ad design, his mother was a visual artist -- Whitley moved to Belgium after a brief stint in New York at the age of 21. He stayed there for eight years, playing in various bands, recording, writing songs.
When he returned to New York in 1988, he took a job as a carpenter, supplementing his income by busking around the city. A low-key modeling gig led to a meeting with Daniel Lanois, a famed songwriter and producer (U2, Peter Gabriel, Bob Dylan).
After hearing Whitley's songs, Lanois helped him land a deal with Columbia records. Whitley's debut, the flawless "Living With the Law," came in 1991. The critics drooled; the album revealed an original voice, lyrics that Whitley described at the time as "psycho-sexual-socio-spiritual," and a musical bent that blended dust bowl balladry and urban sensibility without ever explicitly stating either.
Whitley hit the road opening for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, a gig he remembers as "a bit uncomfortable," due to a lack of intimacy. Though the critics loved "Law," and it sold respectably for a debut, Whitley's wanderlust was as spiritual as it was physical. He had no intention of re-creating "Law's" ambient spirituality the second time around.
Instead, he waited three years to unleash the raggedly glorious "Din of Ecstasy," an album that some fans felt betrayed by. This was razor-edged modern blues without any of the standard blues chord-changes or cliches. There were few songs that radio, had it been so inclined, could have latched on to.
Whitley sent a message with this album, consciously or otherwise: he would not be so easily defined, so neatly packaged and labeled. With the release of "Din," Whitley set out on the course he's still following today. In the process, he's released several masterpieces to a scaled-down but incredibly loyal fan base.
"Hotel Vast Horizon" is the latest in this idiosyncratic series of albums. The record boasts a feel that's likely familiar to fans of Whitley's, but it also has an emotional and musical core that suggests it's different than anything else he's done. It bears the bleakness and frankness of a Bergman film, but still has the blues at its core.
"Part of what you're talking about is probably being in this Eastern European bohemia, you know, which is very much what Dresden is," says Whitley. "I'm so concerned with coming up with some sort of thing that doesn't sound, you know, like 'this is his rootsy Americana album,' or whatever. I'm so tired of that. It's not what I'm trying to do. I'm looking for something more . . . abstract, I guess. Like the French poet Renee Char, who I love. There's something so pure about it, so free of manipulation. In Dresden, it's all djs and electronic music. So I didn't want that either. I just need to have something else, you know? Some sort of existential framework for what I do. Or I else I'm just bored."
So when Whitley's making a record, he's not thinking, "Oh, I want this to sound like that obscure early Johnny Winter recording," or "I've got to re-create that Led Zeppelin drum sound exactly." None of the standard rock stuff for him.
"No, it just bores me," he says, not with arrogance, but rather, a humble bemusement. "I know a lot of people do that, and I'm not saying that people don't make good records that way. But the references are just way too specific for me.
"It's funny . . . in the '60s and '70s, rock was like . . . (laughs) I hate to use this metaphor, but when I was in high school, it was like, jocks and rock types didn't really mix. But today, they're like the same people! It's like, weightlifting is guitar playing! 'How many notes per second can you lift?'
"I can't live in that. I think we need new modes of reference today. I mean, remember when the electric guitar was kinda dangerous? That's gone. Where did it go? Where's the mystery?"
Where did it go? When Whitley plays a room, it's never very far away.
Free Canal concerts
Canadian favorite Blue Rodeo, alt-pop darlings the Gin Blossoms and the tough rock of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts highlight the Molson Canal Concert Series, announced earlier this week by Runwayz Concerts Presents.
The free series opens June 21 with War, a band that brought multicultural sounds into the rock mainstream back in the 1960s. War is still remembered for its summer-party mix of funk, rock and Latin rhythms, heard on such classics as "Why Can't We Be Friends?," "Low Rider" and "The World is a Ghetto."
The Molson Canal Concert Series begins at 6 p.m. Saturdays in Gateway Park, North Tonawanda. More information can be found at www.canalconcerts.com. Here's the lowdown on the schedule.
June 28: Survivor
"Eye of the Tiger," culled from a "Rocky" soundtrack, put Survivor in the spotlight, but it was the band's power ballads and love songs including "The Search is Over," "High on You" and "I Can't Hold Back" that catapulted it to the top of the charts.
July 5: Tom Cochrane and Red Rider with Ari Hest
Cochrane hit big in the '80s with "Lunatic Fringe" -- remember the power-chord intro, all over MTV back in the day? -- but has since moved on to a successful solo career, with intermittent reunions with his old band.
July 26: Blue Oyster Cult
Known to radio listeners for the hits "Don't Fear the Reaper" and "Burnin' For You," this Long Island progressive hard-rock outfit actually has a pedigree that runs much deeper. Rocker/poet Patti Smith penned some lyrics for the band's early albums. Original guitarist Donald "Buck Dharma" Roser, vocalist Eric Bloom and keyboardist/guitarist Alan Lanier remain in the fold. Aug. 2: Gin Blossoms
With an easy-listening melodic pop appeal heard on such songs as "Hey Jealousy" and "Follow You Down," the Gin Blossoms made a major splash in the early '90s; its endearing blend of folk, rock and pop remains fresh and vital today.
Aug. 23: Blue Rodeo
Loved by Western New Yorkers for the distinctly Canadian alternative-country-pop blend the band has perfected over the years, Blue Rodeo remains a force to be reckoned with.
Aug. 30: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts with Alison Pipitone and Skyjuice
Jett not only loves rock 'n' roll, she lives it. One of the first ladies of rock, Jett returns with the Blackhearts.
Aug. 9: Spin Doctors
Who can forget "Little Miss Can't Be Wrong" and "Three Princes"? Commercial success was a fleeting, elusive mistress for the Doctors following its early '90s string of hits, but anyone who has seen the band live in recent years will testify to the enduring blend of funk, rock and blues it throws down.