Every so often a talent comes along in every cultural arena — in sports, in literature, in music, in film, etc. — that’s generational; a talent that is both head and shoulders above their peers, and almost irreproachably so.
Whitley isn’t just the yawning maw of damaged soul that served as the voice for one of the shortest-lived, but absolutely most worthwhile projects of 2011 in Daniel Lanois’s Black Dub — a band that not only featured the 1980s most important producer at its helm, but arguably the world’s finest jazz drummer in Brian Blade on the skins and the troubled but immensely talented Daryl Johnson (briefly with the Rolling Stones) on bass for its lone record — she is the lasting biological footprint of a force in blues that was extinguished before its time. Claimed by lung cancer in 2005, her father Chris Whitley remains as much of an enigma now as he was then, but the waifish, 25-year-old Trixie is embracing the kind of anti-pop deep soul he engendered — and genetically instilled — though six strings with her debut album Fourth Corner, the centerpiece of last Wednesday’s tour stop at the Local 506 in Chapel Hill.In Black Dub, Whitley’s titanic voice was evenhandedly checked — though there were moments like “Surely” where the reins were removed to stunning effect — in favor of the band’s overarching groove and Lanois’s proletarian vision; she was just one in a quartet of generational talents. Her current solo tour, however, is just that to its very core, a sort of Rumspringa where she’s allowed to stay up late, smoke (as she has been inadvisably known to do), listen to Joni Mitchell records on repeat (Blue was the soundtrack to their road trip, her support noted) and generally be as radical as she pleases.
Whitley, for the most part, provided her own accompaniment, displaying a tonal articulacy on both acoustic and electric guitars that’s rare with vocal-forward artists such as her. She’s even better on keys, where the warmth of her Roland stokes the glowing embers of a song like the melancholic “Pieces.” Such seated numbers were almost by definition laser-focused at burning a hole in its listeners’ hearts with antipoetic urgency, but it is the moments where she wails on her electric guitar, stomping out the beat with a heavy right foot that belies her graceful, elven form, that her ideas are felt most decisively.
There was the clamorous “Hotel No Name” that had Whitley playing the part of the punk chanteuse, whipping up a slow-moving storm of noise on guitar and shambolically invecting on the subject of free discourse a la HR on Bad Brains’ “The Youth Are Getting Restless.” That she can shift from such modes back to the plaintive and touching is redolent of the idea that her muse is as much personal as it is philosophical.
As much weight as she carries live, the general criticism of her Dovemanproduced debut, released on Strong Blood, has generally been twofold. Whitley’s potential is undeniable, but as Daniel Lanois once stated, “She grew up listening to all of the right music,” which seems a foregone conclusion in how her songs primarily play upon much-trodden tropes of angst and heartbreak. She sings them like she’s the first to discover these feelings though, which is tied into the second general criticism of her album: The humdrum production generally mutes the fugitive emotion that crutches her compositions.
It’s a fair assessment, given that her last studio venture was a self-contained reactor of artistic rectitude; stepping out from under the auspices of one of the greatest producers in forever would mean the next step would be a stabilizing one, but also inexorably on a downward sloping path. Whitley could undoubtedly go toe-to-toe with Adele based on her raw assets alone, but with her songs themselves seeming prescribed away from popular appeal (her father’s early work was casually rebellious also), harnessing it into nearly 30 million units moved requires machinery not at all at her disposal.
Whitley wasn’t entirely alone in bearing her load on this tour, however. Opening act Dumpster Hunter, or actually the band’s primary Jeff Taylor performing solo under that banner, came aboard for keyboard support on the lullaby “Morelia” and others, a placement that made sense given the recorded arrangement, but also tethered her predilection toward bipolar sonic outbursts.
His own material was has headstrong and brave as Whitley’s in its own way; his unapologetically gangly presence was accompanied by a charmingly quirky but resolute vocal delivery. The name of his band seemd destined for The Onion A/V Club’s annual “Year in Band Names”, but Taylor also seems to be of the ilk for whom rationality is an unnecessary encumbrance. His songs are great, personal affairs that tackle emotional drama with a grin rather than Whitley’s heart-on-asleeve approach, while still maintaining a sense of darkness that doesn’t start to tug at its listeners until after he’s packed up his guitar and put on Blue for the umpteenth time. That he was not at all hesitant in shutting up the boorishly talkative dude in an otherwise quiet, respectful room suggested he really, really wants his songs to be heard.
Taylor’s impatience also noted, the long gruel of this two-singers-and-atech tour at times appeared to catch up with Whitley. She thanked Charleston for having her, despite actually being in Chapel Hill. Having just come from Charlottesville, Charleston might have been the next logical stop, but it’s not in her current plans. Someone from the crowd of about 75 offered her a whiskey to settle her nerves, which she gladly accepted. It didn’t earn the fan a request for “Irene”, the first track off of Fourth Corner, which Whitley politely declined on the basis she had sung it at too many consecutive stops already, nor did she answer calls for some of her more stripped-down Black Dub work, leaving that era aside for the time being as she redefines her place. At only 25, with a lot of room left to grow as a songwriter, there’s no time for the past right now.