When Ray Massucco walked on stage to introduce the first performer at Saturday’s Chris Whitley tribute, he remarked that co-promoter Charlie Hunter wasn’t around. “I think he’s out selling tickets,” Ray told the crowd, which filled maybe a third of the Bellows Falls Opera House.
I have to confess, somewhat sheepishly, that Whitley’s music didn’t touch me as much as his reputation. I knew he could play the hell out of the National Steel guitar, and that his songs came from a very real place.
I was aware that his brother Dan shared the family talents. I’d heard that Chris’s daughter caught the performing bug at a young age. Her MySpace demos reminded me a bit of Missy Higgins or Beth Orton.
None of this knowledge prepared me for the raw emotional power of Trixie Whitley’s performance. The 20-year old acted wan and tentative when she walked on stage, but seemed to gather her strength with each song.
By the end of her set, she owned everyone in the building.
The final verse of her closing number sent a chill down my spine:
“Mama’s got strong blood, Papa’s got strong blood, I learned to survive with that same strong blood”
Trixie was 15 when she wrote “Strong Blood.” Two years later, cancer killed her father. I can’t fathom the courage it took to sing those words to an audience of adoring Chris Whitley fans. She obviously struggled to get through it; her visible pain made it all the more powerful.
“She’s grown up this weekend,” Ray Massucco told me as Trixie left the stage and Dan Whitley launched into his set (solo on a National guitar, no less).
Her potent performance raised the bar for everyone that followed.
Trixie returned to the stage at the start of Vernon Reid’s set to sing backup on “Serve You.” With Dan’s encouragement, she took the lead, and ferociously embraced one of her dad’s best songs.
“Thank you and goodnight,” Reid wisecracked.
“I feel like I should set myself on fire now,” said Alejandro Escovedo, who closed the show.
As things turned out, he did play an incendiary set. “That was worth twenty bucks right there,” one fan commented.
I wish I’d paid more attention to Chris’s music while he was alive. His legacy is in good hands; I suppose that’s a comfort. I can’t wait for next year’s show.
OK, what do we have to look forward to this week?
Wednesday: Jimmy Eat World w/ Paramore, Tsongas Arena – Much of what’s right with the music world can be found here – multiple band shows by young rockers designed to showcase up and coming talent along with the headliner. Young fans may not buy lots of CDs, but they do shell out for T-shirts, buttons and reasonably priced concert tickets.
Thursday: Michael Zsoldos & Draa Hobbs, Elixir – It’s jazz night in White River Junction. Hobbs ia a versatile guitarist who sounds best when he’s summoning of the spirits of masters like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. Zsoldos plays saxophone, and has an impressive resume that includes a PBS documentary score, but kids know him as Woodstock High’s band director.
Friday: Sean Rowe, Salt hill Pub – Lebanon’s cultural exchange with Albany, New York continues. Rowe one-ups fellow Albanian duo Sirsy, a regular favorite of both Salt hills, by playing blues-infused rock all by his lonesome, with the support of a sound and sample machine. Perhaps that should be “one downs.” This talented guitarist has the skills to match the pub’s energy, and a voice that sounds more Mississippi than Hudson River delta.
Saturday: Salsa Dancing, Gusanoz – Cinco de Mayo is to this place what St. Patrick’s Day is to most Irish pubs, an excuse to celebrate all week long. Tonight features Hall of Fame nominee DJ Spin Doctor, who gives a mid-evening dance lesson (rose for clenching between teeth not included), and plays selections from his impressive, and authentic, Salsa library.
Sunday: Herricks Cove Wildlife Festival, Rockingham – Spring has been a long time coming. Local singer/guitarist Jesse Peters, who also hosts the first Friday open mike at McKinley’s in Springfield, is the musical guest for a day that celebrates the natural beauty of this spot along the Connecticut River. There are fly-fishing demonstrations, live owls and reptiles, and an actor portraying John James Audubon. Take I-91 Exit 6 to reach Herricks Cove.
Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Murphy Farm – This loose affiliation embodies the Upper Valley scene. Most of the players at this weekly Quechee jam session gig with other bands, some with several. Listen to Acoustic Coalition recordings on yellowhousemedia.com, my favorite website for local music, for a sense of the inspired fun that transpires. You should check out the site for all the great area talent there.