Wednesday, January 16, 2008


I can't believe that I forgot to mention Chris Whitley & Jeff Lang's Disclocation Blues from my list of my favorite albums of 2007. Of course, it's weird that one of Chris' albums is on my "best of 2007" list, as he passed away in 2005. That aside, it was one of my favorite releases of the year, easily in my top ten. These were the last sesssions he ever recorded, and are among his greatest recordings ever. I have to admit, I'd never heard of Jeff Lang before this - he is an Australian singer/songwriter/guitarist, and clearly a good collaborator for Chris.

A lot of people don't know who Chris was, and that's sad. He was one of the great artists of our time, but never fit in with the mainstream, and was never able to get the hype needed to build a huge career. Not that it would have helped him - he died of lung cancer. But it would have been cool if more people knew about him.

I first heard of him in 1991 - I had tickets to see him open for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. Then I saw a promo of his debut album, the CLASSIC Living With The Law at the record store, and I picked it up. I can safely say, without hyperbole, that I have rarely, if ever, been blown away like that by an artist upon first listen. He was great opening for Petty, even though most of the fans were indifferent at best. I saw him a number of times after that, in many different settings, and he was pretty hit or miss. One time I was at CBGB, at the bar, and I turn around and he's there talking to someone complaining that he wants to release much more music than his label (Sony) would allow him to. At some point, I just said hello, and said that I was a huge fan. He seemed a bit nervous, but was cool and thanked me for waiting for his next album.

I'm not a huge fan of that next album, 1995's Din Of Ecstacy. Less texture, more distortion, it just didn't work for me. And his career kind of lost any momentum that it had by then. His next album, 1997's Terra Incognita, was much better, but by then, people didn't care, his label certainly didn't, and they soon dropped him.

After that, he recorded for a bunch of indie labels, which probably suited him more than a major did. But, at least a few seemed like he was just putting out a quick record for cash (although that may not be true). Some, however, were great. I loved 2000's Perfect Day, an album of covers. I got to interview him around the release of the album, which was pretty cool - except that he looked, well, not too healthy. I don't think I'd ever seen anyone so thin in real life. But his eyes lit up when we were talking about the songs he'd covered, especially Bob Dylan's "Spanish Harlem Incident." He was talking about the last line, "I got to know babe, well would you surround me, so I can know if I am really real." He's like "That's ridiculous," meaning "ridiculously good."

The next year, he released another great album, Rocket House, on Dave Matthews' great label, ATO Records. It kind of a hybrid of his specific brand of blues with DJ-type funk/groove music, and was produced by Tony Mangurian, who worked with Luscious Jackson. I thought that that might be the one that brought Chris to more fans, but it wasn't to be. By the next album, he'd parted ways with ATO. A year or so later, I had the pleasure to interview Dave Matthews, and I talked to him (off camera) about Chris. It looked like it truly pained him that thier business relationship hadn't worked out. He was famously quoted as saying that he was more passionate about Chris' music than his own.

I'm glad I appreciated the guy's music while he walked the earth, and I'm glad that I got to see a number of great performances by him (among the not-so-great ones). Rest In Peace, Chris.

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