Report: William Elliott Whitmore Live DC

April 17 at the Sixth
and I Synagogue: fans were there for the opening act, not the headliner.

 

BY ROXANA HADADI ; PHOTOS BY ADAM FRIED

 

William
Elliott Whitmore isn’t dumb. He knew that barely any people at the sold-out
Chris Cornell show on April 17 at Sixth and I Synagogue in Washington, D.C.,
were there to actually see him, an opener added at the last minute to Cornell’s
nationwide acoustic tour.

 

In
fact, the seven songs Whitmore performed during his brief, 28-minute opening
set were “all new to most of you,” Whitmore joked while introducing a new song,
“Don’t Need It,” which was only truly “new to like, four of you.” Modest and
somewhat self-deprecating? That’s just Whitmore’s way – the blues- and
folk-influenced, gritty singer-songwriter is more than accommodating during his
shows, thanking everyone and acknowledging his luck at being able to play music
for a living. Nearly everyone at Sixth and I that Sunday night had no idea who
Whitmore was, but did that stop the guy from delivering a blisteringly good set
that makes us look forward to his upcoming July release, Field Songs? Of course not.

 

 

 

Whitmore
packed a lot of punch into his seven songs, despite performing with just a kick
drum, guitar and banjo. Sitting on a stool and bathed in eerie red light,
Whitmore started off with no preamble, launching right into “From the Cell Door
to the Gallows,” from 2003’s Hymn for the Hopeless. “Well, I
heard six shots ring out in succession/ And it broke the night air like a china
plate/ And in my knife blade I saw my own reflection/ And the devil was at the
front gate,” sang a scruff-sporting Whitmore, who barely paused before then
jumping into “Diggin’ My Grave,” from 2005’s Ashes to Dust.

 

By
now, people were kind of getting into it – there were fewer questioning murmurs
from the audience, more appreciative nods – and Whitmore got more intense, too,
his voice taking on an anguish that was mirrored in the urgent thump of his
kick drum. The acoustics in Sixth and I were amazing that night, allowing every
strummed chord and sung verse to perfectly reach the audience, and Whitmore
benefited greatly from that clarity. “Oh, how I wish that I could have stayed,”
Whitmore lamented, “But the hole is made/ Oh, lord, the hole is made.” After
the regretful song’s conclusion is when Whitmore chose to make his move,
unleashing his customary charm on the audience: “Thank you, friends,” Whitmore
gushed. “Thank you for listening.”

 

But
if you’ve seen Whitmore before, you know he’s not just polite – he can be
undeniably heart-warming, too, as listeners learned when Whitmore announced his
next song would be “about the first hobo I ever met,” the “coolest motherfucker”
Whitmore knew. “This song is for Hub Cale,” Whitmore announced, transitioning
into “Lift My Jug (Song for Hub Cale),” also off Ashes to Dust, the only truly up-tempo song in his lineup that
night. An homage to Hub Cale’s free spirit while simultaneously an attack on
the institutions that made him that way – the anti-The Man sentiment is typical
in Whitmore’s songs, which often sound like a John Steinbeck novel set to music
– “Lift My Jug” won the audience over, even as its lyrics grow more depressing.
“I made my livin’ shovelin’ coal/ Paid my dues for 12 long years/ Then one day
they let me go/ And that time it sure was rough/ And the labor sure took its
toll,” Whitmore sang, and when the audience clapped afterward, they were
certainly more welcoming than they’d been just minutes before.

 

 

 

 

And
really, minutes is all the audience had left with Whitmore – three songs in, he
was already about halfway done with his allotted time. Next up was “Hell or
High Water” off 2009’s Animals in the
Dark
, which Whitmore prefaced by admitting it was the “first time I’ve been
in a synagogue – anyone else?” To be fair, though, he doesn’t “get into
churches much,” either. Then there was “Hard Times,” also from Animals in the Dark, which Whitmore
dedicated to a friend named Chris – “Uh, yeah, different Chris,” he said
sheepishly, referring to Cornell – and used as an opportunity to explain the
benefits of personal challenges and obstacles (“You don’t want an easy life, ‘cause
then you wouldn’t have any character, you know?”). And then there was “Don’t
Need It” from the coming-soon Field Songs,
which followed Whitmore’s everyman theme: “I’m gonna keep the rain off my head/
I’m gonna keep the mosquitos from getting fed/ I don’t need them at all/ No, not
at all,” he crooned, a tantalizing glimpse into the kind of
angry-workers’-field-songs fans will be getting in a few months’ time.

 

And
just like that, nearly 25 minutes had passed, bringing Whitmore to his closer,
“Old Devils,” the first single from Animals
in the Dark
. As he extolled against politicians’ and corporations’ evils
and how they bring about “desperation, death and despair” for everyone else,
Whitmore got more and more frenzied, snarling final lines like, “I guess I will
confess that I’ve been suffering/ The old devils are at it again … Who knows
what they’ll do?” Who knows, indeed.

 

 

 

 

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