Chris Whitley Unplugs at Old Town’s Birchmere

[cowritten with Karen Weis]

Chris Whitley performed an intimate show at the Birchmere a week ago Thursday. During a solo acoustic set, he switched between two National Steel guitars as he played new material and songs from his debut album “Living With The Law,” which “Rolling Stone” magazine chose as Record of the Year for 1991.

Whitley took brief smoke breaks in between songs, tuning his guitars as he took a puff before launching into another song.

The dinner theater setting of the Birchmere allowed Whitley to connect with his audience, whose enthusiasm never faltered. Songs from the album were especially well received, although there was incredible response for his intricate solos in the new songs.

Expulsion bugged people backstage until granted an interview. At least, the manager said, “You can go back there. He’s in a crowd, but if you can talk to him, be my guest.”

Expulsion: Are you going into the studio soon?
Whitley: Yes, in December for another album.
E: Will you be playing with a band or solo acoustic?
W: I like playing solo a lot, but I like a band too. I do a little of both on the record – one acoustic track, then one that’s in your face.
E: Is most of it written already?
W: Yes. Tonight I played most of the stuff I’ve been writing.
E: On the night of the L.A. riots, you were playing a live show at the Palace in Hollywood that was being recorded for Westwood One Radio. What did it feel like?
W: It was wild that night. We had to shoot a video the next day and then hop a bus to Phoenix. We almost couldn’t get back. The audience in L.A. is all people in the music industry. On the way out of town, all the record execs were scared that their homes in the hills would be torched, and that they’d get killed on their way home or something. To come to L.A. from Europe, as I did, to flat America, was culture shock. L.A. was so weird, it was fitting that someone was trying to burn it. Here in America, someone was pissed off. It was a weird vibe. E: Did you write a song about it, like Tom Petty with “Peace in L.A.”?
W: No, I don’t write topical things. They don’t inspire me much, though I like when people do it well. It’s interesting – I released a B-side from that show in Europe, a live version of “A Pint Of Lotion.”
E: You’ve appeared on the “Arsenio Hall Show,” “David Letterman,” and the “Tonight Show,” playing electric with a band. Did you ever try doing an acoustic set?
W: I could have. I did on MTV in Canada. It was never a question. Part of it is that TV’s so promotional. The record execs wanted to show something that represents the record. I like playing live and being able to improvise. When I was opening for Tom Petty, they played all their songs exactly the same, every night. My band’s a trio. Even electrically we can play off one another – we’ve arranged it so everyone can step out and solo. It’s organized for the record, but live it’s unrestrained.
E: What inspires you?
W: Whatever – I can’t really pick subjects. I have phrases, come up with chords, or look at something I haven’t done a hundred times and try to pull lyrics from the music. I come up with a melody in my head. I wrote “Big Sky Country” that way, hummed it into a Walkman and came up with chords.
E: How is this upcoming album different from your previous one?
W: This record’s different because I’ve been living differently since the last one. I don’t write well, meaning that I don’t choose subjects that are really accessible. I used to try, but don’t anymore. It’s deliberate for me.
E: Who are your favorite bands?
W: I like the Flaming Lips, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive – soft but washout noise guitar. Americans…Nirvana, Hendrix, Zeppelin – stuff my parents listened to. I never listen to blues, but every now and then I listen to blues from the 50s, like Muddy Waters. Nat “King” Cole…the man had a perfect voice. Iggy Pop is my favorite lyricist in the States.
E: What were influences on your picking style?
W: Johnny Winter’s first record in 1969 – that song “Dallas” gravitated me toward using a National Steel. I listened to Andy Summers of The Police and Gary Numan. The Earth, Wind and Fire horn section syncopated it; the syncopation they had was so funky. I love it. It’s not uncommon for white guys who play Delta blues to have a peculiar style but syncopation’s important. My favorite guitar artists are still Hendrix and Jimmy Page. I don’t strum. David Pirner of Soul Asylum asked me to give him lessons, but I couldn’t.
E: Where did you get your guitars?
W: I bought both in New York. One’s ’28, the other’s a ’31 – they’re dobros. I use them, but play mainly electric guitars, mostly 50s and 60s Les Pauls or Fenders.
E: Where do you go from here?
W: I’m going back to New York tomorrow. Playing tonight was a one shot thing, not part of a tour. I’m going to Australia and New Zealand next.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]