By: Trina Green
He raised his glass, dispatched a wish upon the room, took a sip and then it was on.
“May the jaws of death have cotton teeth.”
There are many aspects of his presence and persona to appreciate: His amazing body art (tattoos to die for) and ability to hold his whiskey are, themselves, pretty epic. Then there is his command and conveyance of the human condition as he knows it via that voice. That incredible, raggedly textured and expressive voice that surely belongs to an aged, bluesman born and raised far below the Mason-Dixon line, right? No, that glorious noise is coming out of the mouth of a 34-year son of the Iowa soil.
The Roxy was a warm and welcoming place for William Elliot Whitmore who is probably the most famous resident to come out of Lee County, Iowa where he still calls home. If, for some reason, you are not familiar with the man or what he brings to the music table, what you are missing is one of the earthiest and soulful conductors of punk-tinged roots, blues and folk breathing today. On record and live the man is a minimalist because it’s just him, his banjo, his guitar and- now having gone high tech- he has upgraded his rhythm section by replacing the steady stomp of his left foot with a kick drum. That’s how he rolls.
The fact that so many Los Angelinos packed into the venue on a Friday night to see a man with a banjo is amazing (not going to lie about that), but that simply exemplified the very words that came out of Whitmore’s own mouth: “Folks are just folks everywhere.” And those “folks” were a healthy cross section of the LA scene from middle-aged blues fans and hipster and punk youth to Sunset Strippers and frat boy pretty; all who appreciate his rugged and bare bones esthetic.
For a good- no, a great- hour and forty minutes Whitmore wielded what can only be described as his gifted weapon of the art of storytelling to one hell of an enthusiastic audience, most of who were obviously repeat Whitmore offenders and sang along song for song. He is part-troubadour singing about love, pain and the simple things in life and part-preacher bearing the gospel of sin and redemption with a voice that Tom Waits could only dream of. Dipping into the deep well of his discography, he thoroughly represented his “classics” along with songs on his latest release, Field Songs, like “Everything Gets Gone” and “Field Song” where he swears that “The best of times ain’t happened yet.” Notorious (in a good way) for being a guy who just doesn’t do set lists was and always is one of the beauties of his shows. He encouraged the already boisterous crowd to “gently” make their requests (they shouted and screamed them) making it feel as if he were playing in a neighborhood dive bar or your living room for likeminded, whiskey drinking wayward souls there for a good time. More often than not those gently requested songs led to conversations that charmingly took the show and man off script but for the fact that he doesn’t have one. For every achingly bruised and soulful expression (“Digging My Grave,” “Midnight,” “Porchlight,” “Who Stole the Soul”) he countered and balanced with uplift and hope (“Let’s Do Something Impossible,” “Take It On the Chin,” “Hell or High Water”). And, of course, songs like “Lift My Jug” (an ode to a hobo), “Johnny Law” and “Lee County Flood” were the foot-stomping, hand clapping kind that raised the glasses, energy, volume and joy level in the room each time.
Showing his natural reverence for the music that came before him Whitmore delivered stark yet powerful versions of Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and Bad Religion’s “Don’t Pray On Me”; the latter being a pure punk ode to resistance. It’s obvious that he is and always has been tuned in to the life and times that we live in as the lyrics of his songs seem timeless, resonating from year to year, election cycle to election cycle: see “Old Devils” and his pointed, “its true right now like it was back then” for further. Amen, William.
Bless his heart, William Elliott Whitmore is that perfect proof that an artist doesn’t need a lot of hardware, software, stage tricks, back up singers or wardrobe changes to own an audience and rock them at the soul level.
“Oh, how it pleases me to be in such company and I’m so glad our paths have crossed”….”Hell Or High Water”
The feeling is mutual, sir.
-Party foul 15 minutes into the set as a fan directly in front of Whitmore spilled their drink. The lost beverage was appropriately mourned by all.
-At least three shots glasses made their way to him from the audience.
-Before performing the loudly requested (screamed for) “Black Iowa Dirt”, Whitmore gave us a block of instruction on how to “use the Earth as a canon.”
-His forceful strumming during “Midnight” resulted in a broken guitar string. Samantha Crain (his opening act/tour mate) graciously let him borrow her guitar for the rest of the set.
-He has Public Enemy to thank for his song “Who Stole the Soul” and now so do we.