Chris Whitley

Dislocation Blues

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Recorded in April of 2005, seven months before Chris Whitley's death from lung cancer, Dislocation Blues is a fine, perhaps even glorious, epitaph. Aussie blues guitarist Jeff Lang and Whitley, friends since the mid-'90s, hooked up as part of an Australian tour and took a couple of weeks to record these 14 songs (the final two, Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail" and Whitley's "Kick the Stones," are uncredited) with the rhythm section of Grant Cummerford and Ashley Davies. This collection of traditional blues tunes such as "Stagger Lee," covers of Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece" and "Changing of the Guard," and originals from the catalogs of both men is an intimate, loose, deeply intuitive, and complementary set. Whitley plays his trademark National Steel for a good portion of this (all but one cut, actually), while Lang plays National, amplified lap steel, and electric and acoustic guitars, while the rhythm section -- using a trap kit and upright and bowed bass -- burrows deep into the spaces these songs inhabit. Whitley's tunes such as "Velocity Girl," "Rocket House," and "Dislocation Blues" resonate more truthfully in this environment -- much as they did in his last few years playing live -- than they did on his earlier studio recordings. There is an aesthetic here, one that treats everything, whether it's Lang's beautiful ballad "Ravenswood" or Whitley's "Motion Bride," as blues. The latter features Lang on a fretless banjo à la Dock Boggs. Even "When I Paint My Masterpiece" is radically reinterpreted here -- much as Dylan might do himself on-stage on any given night -- and drenched in that sleepy narcotic cough-syrup blues played by latter-day Mississippi Delta dwellers such as Junior Kimbrough and David Malone. This is country music, taken from the extremes of Whitley's native Texas and Lang's wild and woolly Australia. "Changing of the Guard" is a different song entirely -- slow, purposeful, almost a hymn of a country gospel tune. If Dylan cares, he's gotta be proud about turning this barn-burning apocalyptic surreal poem into a forbidding love song. The two uncredited tunes show up in one selection, and the pair brilliantly morph "Hellhound" into the Whitley tune, taking it out on an eerie whisper, full of darkness and shadow -- much like death. This one is for the Whitley fans who dug War Crime Blues or Soft Dangerous Shores. Lang, of all the people Whitley played and recorded with, proved to be the most symbiotic of all. This is a collaboration in every sense of the word, but Whitley's silent but towering figure looms large. One can only hope that, at least posthumously, Whitley will get his due as a great American songwriter, storyteller, and bluesman -- not to mention an original guitarist.

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