Chris Whitley’s Hotel Vast Horizon

cover, Hotel Vast HorizonChris Whitley first took center stage with a stunning debut album called Living With The Law in 1991. Slide guitar, solid rhythms and Chris’s vocals in a Lousiana gumbo … it was beautifully funky. After a couple of changes of direction (Din of Ecstacy and Terra Incognito), he returned from a loud and grungy path to acoustic slide guitar recorded in a barn. Dirt Floor (1998) was a return to form, and an outstanding album. Concerts from that year were represented in the 2000 live album Live at Martyrs. I saw him one night in Toronto, and he was outstanding. Too bad no-one recorded his duet that night, with Johnny Lang on the last night of their tour. That version of “Poison Girl” still resonates in my head! After an album of covers (Perfect Day in 2000) the year 2001 saw both a new album (Rocket House) and a retrospective called Long Way Around. I guess Mr. Whitley was wondering what to do next. Well, he returned to the format he has had the most success with, and to the label that he did it with!

Messenger Records’ new release is an album of acoustic songs, similar in feel to Dirt Floor but recorded this time with a band. Hotel Vast Horizon is bigger in title, and cast, but the sound is still intimate and sensitive. The band consists of Heiko Schramm on bass and Matthias Macht on drums. The volumes are low, the drums brushed and the bass just providing a deep foundation over which Chris sings and works his magic on a variety of metal-bodied resonator guitars. These guitars provide Whitley with his extraordinary sound. The Dobros and National guitars are marvelous instruments … and Whitley’s unique open tunings allow a spectrum of voicings and riffs that echo influences from blues, jazz and world music. Not limited by western scales, Whitley is not afraid to use dissonance and any other sounds he can strain from the six strings and the spun-steel plate. This is music to play loud, and yet it is essentially quiet in approach. But volume allows a fuller appreciation of the sound of the instruments.

Heavily rhythmic, the songs have lyrics that are mumbled and whispered, but when read are striking in their imagery.

When at last I was left for dead
the dissident sister took me in
underground at the edge of time
desire alone forgoes the crime
(from “New Lost World”)

The horizon pales
when she hits the ground
sirens and scaffolds
all coming down
under the weight of heaven
if only devotion
could rise on a word
then you could stumble
never be hurt
you could let go
(from “Breaking Your Fall”)

There are echoes of Jimi Hendrix in the way these images are dispensed. The drummer shuffles, the bass player hits a groove and Whitley spins exotic webs of notes and chords. His soft voice delivers the words…

Through magnetic fields
the golden days go by
could get reduced to steel
in your mind’s eye
out along a frozen plane
our system’s wasted away
all alone with our love
and a blues for Andre.
(from “Blues For Andre”)

This is haunting, haunted music. Music for night-time. Music for guitar lovers. Music for blues lovers. Not for everybody maybe but definitely for the adventurous listener who is looking for a challenge and a groove.

(Messenger Records, 2003)

David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.

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