If the late Chris Whitley was often his harshest critic, one of his final sessions yielded a group of recordings that has begun to please fans and observers as much as it did Whitley in his final days
If the late Chris Whitley was often his harshest critic, one of his final sessions yielded a group of recordings that has begun to please fans and observers as much as it did Whitley in his final days.
Released April 3 by Rounder, "Dislocation Blues" is the fruit of Whitley's April 2005 recording session in Melbourne with longtime friend and fellow singer/songwriter/slide guitarist Jeff Lang. Recorded two years ago this month, it finds Lang and Whitley reinterpreting their own material, cutting new songs and capturing such covers as Bob Dylan's "When I Paint My Masterpiece."
Since a chance meeting in 1993, Lang and Whitley had discussed collaborating in the studio for years. But logistics and cost prevented Whitley from making the trek to Lang's native Australia until just seven months before he died of lung cancer at 45.
"It was a spontaneous suggestion of Chris' that initiated the recording," says Lang. "I was doing a run of shows with him in Oregon, Washington and Alaska in October 2004, and after my set on the first night in Portland, Chris was standing in the hallway at the back of the stage and started right away talking about us recording a duo record. We discussed some of the songs that we'd tackle, and even recorded rough hotel room versions of a couple of songs."
The "Dislocation" sessions yielded a little bit of everything, from spontaneous creations to genuine magic, says Lang. "The recording of the song 'Underground' was striking, as it was written out of this long, wild jam," he says. "Also, the version of Dylan's 'Changing of the Guard' was intense. None of us wanted to even breathe at the end of the take in case we wrecked the mood."
During the session, Whitley showed few signs of his impending demise. "He was a bit frail, physically, which we just chalked up to him having had quite a big weekend of drinking immediately before the sessions," Lang says. "In hindsight the signs were there that he was actually in really bad shape, but apart from the fact that he didn't look after himself there was no apparent cause for concern. No one knew that he had lung cancer at this stage."
Never trusting his own opinion of his work, Whitley had asked Lang to mix and produce the disc. About eight weeks before his death, and just three weeks before he would be diagnosed with lung cancer, Whitley called Lang raving about the final mixes.
"He was a bit drunk," Lang says, "and he called me up to say how much he liked the record. He had it blasting away on repeat in the background for an hour-and-a-half as we spoke and he sounded in great spirits. He said that when he left Australia he wasn't sure that he'd contributed anything of value to the recording, but now listening to the final thing, he was so relieved that it had come out so well. Now that he's gone, I take some heart from that."