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coverpic flag Australia - Full Moon 86 - 10/10/03

Chris Whitley
Great Northern Hotel, Byron Bay & The Healer, Brisbane, 30. & 31.08.03

Having witnessed Chris Whitley's performance in Australia in November 1999 following the release of Dirt Floor, I was keen to revisit and observe the state of play both musically and mentally. With hardly a word from Whitley and a heavy hand applied to most of the set that night, all subtlety and nuance usually expected from his performance was shut out. Seasoned followers will tell you his frame of mind can either help or hinder his performance and he was both compelling and frustrating over the course of these shows.

Tall and thin with a hard-wired sinewy frame, Whitley takes to the Great Northern stage and stoops down to place his amplified foot stomp in its rightful place. He lights up while down there and stands inside his DIY mushroom cloud of smoke, slings the big silver National low on his left hip and lurches into his collection of skewed meditations.

If it's blues, it's a blues uniquely Whitley's own. There's a known, broken dexterity at work here that made both Dirt Floor and Hotel Vast Horizon sparse diamonds. Large bent notes fall back into hushed fingered chords and vocals with many songs straying so far from their originals recognition doesn't arrive immediately.

The approach affords him freedom to roam far and if you're along for the rocky ride, it's one you won't regret. The stage is bare except for some foldbacks, a mic stand and the famed foot stomp. His songs suitably appear so bare and bereft you feel as though you're leaning in close listening to the whispers of a close friend.

Things ain't quite right at Byron Bay, where Whitley fumbles and pauses after the first few songs. Apologies and confessions of "I'm so cooked, man" bring gales of laughter from the audience. Further explanations from Whitley reveal that being so far from home with missing luggage is leaving him feeling cooked and not the infamous local smoke the audience initially assumed.

We're being sucked into the vortex of Whitley's world; he's taking frequent breaks to sit back down on the drum riser with his head in his hands, repeating apologies, murmuring regrets and scathing comments between songs. In spite of the wayward stuff the audience remain resolute, repeatedly urging him to continue regardless of his frame of mind.

After a sizeable break quite soon into the 'set', Whitley is coaxed back to the stage where he requests that we do him a favour and go to the door to ask for our money back. This is immediately and good-naturedly howled down and he makes his way through several more songs before finishing with the trademark foot stomped version of "Big Sky Country". Yet more apologies are made and a brief goodnight wished to the Byron audience. Despite his request I notice no one has requested their money back on their way out.

The sit-down, tea-lights-on-the-tables atmosphere of The Healer in Brisbane had Whitley immediately at odds with the environment. Still very much seething from his luggage problems (apparently the missing bag contained his tuners and slides) he continually murmured "motherfuckers that rip you off' between songs, spoken in so hushed and slight a manner it seemed to be used as fuel to burn and twist the performance rather than amuse the audience.

Despite the ongoing bile he gained more focus here and put in quite a full show comprising Dirt Floor and Hotel Vast Horizon material and a smattering of choice cuts from earlier albums. He attacks "To Joy (Revolution Of The Innocents)" with much conviction and dramatically opens up for the mantra-like "Angels, and even devils, too, all await to show how far we come to joy".

There's a genuine beauty in his vocal delivery, especially the breathy just-there falsetto that is his trademark. Even though the set could be seen as somewhat marred by Whitley's outlook, there's no doubt it fuelled his work here tonight and those golden subdued moments were worth the price of admission alone. His 'time' may have come and gone (ie. Living With The Law and its associated troubadour coolness) but for those who continue their support Whitley definitely seems to be at the peak of his powers, however lonely that peak may be for him. It's extremely difficult watching someone so special crash and burn mid-tour - perhaps his brilliant Scrapyard Lullaby says it most appropriately; "Thirty five angels looking after me/They been watching with eyes so wide".

A true 'warts and all' performance then - one that had the audience swinging from disdain to bewilderment to rapture throughout the duration of these two shows. We can only hope - in spite of his declaration at the last Brisbane gig it would be his last Australian tour - he will find it in him to return to galvanise and intrigue. Although the supposed demons that haunt him whilst touring the Southern hemisphere still remain, I for one wish him a hassle-free trip back as these shows rank among the most strangely compelling I've witnessed for years.

Copyright © 2003 Brian Stradbrook e-mail address

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