Registered: Mar 2006
I wrote this piece after Chris came through Montpellier in 2002 or 2003
Chris Whitley was coming to town. Being one of the finest exponents of national steel guitar in the world it was once again going to be a privilege to witness such finesse on stage, but this time we’d decided to interview him for a local radio station. The tour manager had been contacted and had no objections: it was now up to Chris to pick a time which would be convenient for him. It was impossible to talk to him before the show, and when he took the stage he looked so frail that you had the impression that the fan blowing on him to keep him cool could sweep him off his chair. But he held steady for the hour and a half set, just him and his guitar, his right foot pumping like a metronome, self-consciously mumbling vague explanations between each song which no-one could understand. I started to wonder what the interview would be like if he remained this articulate, but after the show when I approached him to discuss the details, he seemed genuinely pleased to do it, and it was arranged that he would come to my house for lunch the following day and that we’d take it from there.
He arrived on time and since the weather was fine we had decided to eat in the garden. It was one of those beautiful mediterranean autumn days, when in spite of a few passing clouds the sun is hot even though you know that its trying really hard to prove it. There is a very tall pine tree in the garden next to mine, where every year at the end of october starlings gather in droves to prepare for their long migration south, and the air is full of constant chattering from the branches as more and more groups of birds converge on what is obviously an important meeting place.
Chris was becoming progressively relaxed and was telling me of his work on Cassandra Wilson’s first album, especially about her version of “I can see the rain”.
“You know, if someone asks me to play on their album, they know what they’re going to get. I mean I play in a particular way, even if I have 32 different ways of tuning my guitar. I was just mucking around in the studio on my own, playing anything that came into my head, without realising that the tape was running. I saw Cassandra through the glass making an arm movement to me to keep going, and she walked into the studio and started singing the song. I knew it and just followed in the same vein, and that was it.”
The simplicity of his explanation inspired me to ask if he’d be willing to play a song for the radio live in the garden, and he agreed. He went out to the car to get his guitar and his picks, came back and set himself up to play. His picks were in a beaten up old cardboard box which had been taped up so much that there was hardly any cardboard left: his fetish box he said. He then took out his 1928 national steel guitar, which had all the wear and shine of a precious antique, and started playing.
A sort of silence filled the air. We could hear him playing, but the chattering from the tree had stopped. He continued on,and suddenly there was a whooooosh as all the 6 or 7 thousand birds left their meeting place in an enormous swaying shroud and started flying over our heads in perfect formation, swooping and bending in a undulating mass ballet, exquisitely grouped, drawn by the music. Chris kept playing, as if in a trance, and the cloud of birds continued dancing in unison over us until he stopped, and the birds returned to the tree and took up their conversations.
All of us were covered in bird droppings, apart from Chris, who looked at us in pure wonder and said “ That was the most amazing experience I’ve ever had while playing, and look, I don’t have a drop of bird shit on me or my guitar”.
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