Chris Whitley has been one of the most expansive voices to fall under the loose rubric of blues in eons. That doesn’t mean he plays faster or wails more rapturously or dazzles within the context of those ubiquitous 1-4-5 changes. It means he’s internalized the core sensibility of the idiom, before its ascent into the moribund realm of a showcase for soloists.
The electrification of the blues that was happening in numerous locales but coalesced under the externally imposed banner of Chicago Blues was a means to stay current and open new possibilities. Alas, the success of those possibilities systemized and sanitized the form so completely that most practitioners now sound like franchisees.
Just like many of his forebears, Whitley has found greater success in Europe than in his American homeland. His previous album, Hotel Vast Horizon, was his first fully acoustic set, and it was recorded with musicians from Germany, where he’s now living. He has continued in the same vein, now forgoing other players for a pair of solo discs.
Weed finds him revisiting his own catalog. The songs luxuriate in his comfort and familiarity with them, but they are simultaneously elevated into mesmerizingly powerful performances, his solitary stance underscoring the inherent passion in each track. In their original form, Whitley embraced the production possibilities available to him in a studio and arranged for a band; here, the songs are stripped to the same intimate scale one would encounter at his recent solo shows.
War Crime Blues offers eight new compositions along with Whitley’s versions of Lou Reed’s “I Can’t Stand It”, The Clash’s “The Call Up” and “Nature Boy” by Eden Ahbez. The latter, presented as a brief a cappella rendering, closes the set in the guise of a human-scaled prayer.