There are the fortunate few who really encountered Chris Whitley's music during his brief lifetime (he passed away from cancer in November of 2005); for everyone else, recordings like this are gifts. Whitley's last official offering was Reiter In, recorded as he was dying -- he was a pauper, an imperfect businessman who had been deeply exploited by unscrupulous labels and "handlers." The record was a way to leave something for his daughter, Trixie, a brilliant singer, pianist, and songwriter in her own right, and was the last we thought we'd get from him. On Air was recorded on September 8, 2003 at Radio Bremen. It showcases the artist many of us remember best: a guy with a beat vintage National Steel guitar with a stompbox for his foot, playing his songs with all the revelatory passion and pathos he'd written them with.
There are 17 cuts on this set, they range in origin from material he recorded for his Sony records, to killer blues and rock covers arranged and performed as only he could: enigmatically. The recording quality is flawless, the vibe in the room and its sonics are picked up perfectly, and Whitley's otherworldly engagement with his guitar and voice are captured intimately and forcefully. Performed in this way, his own vintage tunes carry the immediacy that they were written with, the contain a definite raw psychosexual spiritual magnetism, whether it's "Kick the Stones," the spooky blues of "Clear Blue Sky," "Shadowland," or "New Lost World," or "Hotel Vast Horizon," just to name a few. This vision of his, with the world as a darkly magical place for caged and restless spirits to wander through and connect with one another in any way they could, was also revealed in his covers. There are a number of them here, including Muddy Waters' "Light Rain," the Doors' "Crystal Ship," Bob Dylan's "Fourth Time Around," and Buddy Holly's "Well...All Right." But the real deal here is that Whitley made no distinctions -- in performance at least -- between his own songs and those he loved. He performed them all with a fervent desire to reveal their meanings, to release them to his audiences through the ritual of playing live. What On Air also offers is yet another view of the sheer originality and technical acumen Whitley possessed as a guitarist. One of the reasons that his albums were all over the place stylistically and in terms of production is because he understood exactly what he was doing as a player. He could lay seven different guitar tracks down on a given song in the studio, because when he played live he could find a way to pull it off without gimmicks. All of Chris Whitley's music was rooted in Delta and Texas blues, no matter how it eventually came off on his studio recordings. Here, that's obvious, whether he's rattling a slide as he plays a completely separate melody line with his other fingers, or whether he's crooning a spooky, seductive ballad. It all sounds like Robert Johnson meets Blind Lemon Jefferson meets the drone of Lightnin' Hopkins meets the bravado and roar of Muddy Waters and the sly humor of Dylan wrapped in the apocalyptic visions of Bill Fay.
For Whitley's fans, this is essential listening; it's the measure of the artist in a sympathetic venue, allowing all of his prodigious gifts to surface. On Air will edify anyone who takes the trouble to encounter it. Those of us who followed his work can only on hope this is the first of many such tapes to surface.