Chris Whitley

Reiter In

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One has to wonder if Reiter In is, in fact, the late Chris Whitley's last will and testament in terms of recordings. Done in the first three days of June, 2005 -- he was already ill -- this set was recorded in New York with a host of friends he called "the Bastard Club" on analogue tape. The band is large, the sound is immediate. The feel is loose, raw, dark, rocked-up, and in-your-face. Without trying to sound morbid, the feeling of death and mortality is everywhere. The word "reiter" means "horseman." There were no overdubs. The track selection bears out the mood of the players. The tape bleeds through, and studio dialogue seeps through. The tape winds to a fast stop where the cuts get made and then slip into gear again to start them. Opening with the Stooges classic "I Wanna Be Your Dog" with a distorted, plodding, raucous, so-loose-it-almost-falls-apart in the beginning as Whitley's electric guitar playing is over the damn edge. The vocals aren't spectacular -- they don't have to be -- but the vibe is. The track is pure sexual darkness in overdrive. That kind of libertine darkness, held close in so many of his own songs, is let out of the bag here and it makes no apologies and takes no prisoners. Restraint is cast to the dustbin, but the tune just sort of ends, falls apart as if the band is completely spent after playing it. It's followed by a too-loose reading of Willie Dixon's "Bring It On Home." Whitley was first and foremost a blues player; though it's true he invented his own kind of rusted American desert blues. Here, he tries to play it straight, and his thin, raspy voice is no match for the drunken slippage of the guitars. "Inn," features Whitley's trademark bottleneck playing on electric, accompanied by harmonica, Sean Balin's violin, Kenny Siegal's acoustic guitar slips in and out, and Whitley moans and groans ever-so-ghostly and speaks through the mix. He says at one point "you just watch me walk away..." as the guitars just float, stab, wind and bend; drums are absent on this one. Delays and distortion boxes can't hide Whitley's spare playing. The cover of the Flaming Lips' "Mountain Side" is just F***in' awesome. It many ways it tops the original with Whitley's screaming electric slide playing tearing up the tune from the inside, it sounds like the voice of the mountain calling out of itself. This track just roars, and Whitley's voice holds authority over the din. "Cut the Cards" is a country tune that feels a lot like Ronnie Lane is playing with Whitley; its lyrics a haunted poem by Pierre Reverdy, its melody written by harmonicat and lap steel player Tim Beattie. But there's more. The other covers include a messed-up thudding, nightmarish rock version of the Passions' "I'm in Love with a German Film Star," with spooky vocals by Whitley and Gwen Snyder. Also here is a freakish, beautifully paranoid, electric guitar blaze-out version of Gary Numan's "Are Friends Electric" that turns the tune into something else entirely. Whitley's take on the lyric is so startling it's as if the words had never been heard before; like he uncovers a hidden meaning in them as he stares into the void. But there is no morbidity in them at all. It's life looking through the portal at its other side. But Whitley's own tunes offer the true testament to what's happening. The title track features Sussan B├╝rger's translated spoken word reading of a German poem by an unknown author. The words speak to death with courage and resignation, acceptance, sorrow, and hope. The guitars simply walk behind her, carrying the weight of humanity into something beyond oblivion: "The rider is the ghost that leads the body/Its longings embody the journey of the soul/through the world/with all its temptations, obstacles, tests, rehearsals and proof of character/and its development toward perfection..." "I Go Evil" is hard, Hendrix-styled funky blues wailing without restraint. It's rage, libido, and fear all channeled into the almighty riff. The shuffling blues of "All the Beauty Taken from You in This Life Remains Forever" is driven choogling by harmonica, National Steel bottleneck, snare and cymbal, fiddle, and who knows what else, offering a bed for Whitley's snarling moan on a journey: stuttering, faltering, falling, and staggering through life to its conclusion. Heiko Schramm's instrumental "Come Home" is where the trip ends. Once more, Whitley's soaring slide rises above the messy rhythm section to find its place in the heavens. It touches earth a time or two, riffing, hard, slinky, tough, erotic, and gritty. But it never stops climbing, singing itself into the sun beyond night like an Icarus who has wings of titanium instead of wax. And then -- it just stops. Over. No tape bleed-through. Nothing. Silence. Too brief; too soon. Fly free old friend.

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