Just a man and his guitar: that's all Live at Martyrs' is. Yet it is perhaps the best way to hear Chris Whitley, separated from the studio trappings that had a tendency to obscure and hinder his otherwise gutsy folk-blues on previous recordings, and planted precisely in the element that helped earn him his name in singer/songwriter and critical circles. That is part of what makes the album such a welcome addition to the cult musician's mixed catalog. Recorded in Chicago over a few nights in 1999, Live captures all the things that make Whitley's music so enticing: heated passion, raw intensity, and an indescribable urge toward both the sacred and profane. It is, in fact, a logical extension from both his outstanding debut album and his previous effort, Dirt Floor, the two most lauded releases of his career. Stripped of commercial production and all other confusing affectations, the recording allows his wonderful songs and torrid delivery to take center stage. It might be instructive to note that half the set list comes from the first two studio albums, with only three deriving from the third and fourth albums. His second and third albums received only lukewarm reviews, but the songs from those efforts are given revelatory readings that far surpass the original incarnations, almost sounding like entirely new songs. The two new songs that are included prove strong additions to Whitley's songbook, while his cover of Kraftwerk's "The Model" is virtually unrecognizable and like nothing else in his canon. His guitar picking on the song is almost banjo style, and he sings with a smooth croon instead of his normal cavorting vocals. In general, though, even as spare as the recording is, it is highly atmospheric. Whitley's electrified guitar can sound like warped metal ("Dirt Floor") or like sepia-toned, foot-stomping country-blues, and on the new "Home Is Where You Get Across" his playing is strikingly close to the phenomenal picking skills of Leo Kottke. Much of the music is blues-based, and certain songs still roll around in the mud and get rather grungy, but surprisingly, in this naked setting, the songs take on a folk-like dimension (albeit overdriven folk), with progressive songwriters from the '60s such as Tim Hardin and Tim Buckley (or, for a more contemporary comparison, Jeff Buckley) frequently springing to mind. It is soulful stuff and gets at the essence of what makes Chris Whitley such a thrilling musician when he is "on": electrifying instrumental abilities and shadowy, dark-edge story-songs that dig into your skin and unravel you layer by layer. Although it is top-heavy on the first two albums, Live at Martyrs' is possibly the best end-to-end effort in his early catalog.
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AllMusic Review by Stanton Swihart