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POP MUSIC REVIEW

Whitley, McCue speak out in their songs

March 12, 2004|Natalie Nichols | Special to The Times

Making the political personal can be tricky, and in these times it may be especially difficult for conscientious singer-songwriters to separate the two. The respective performances by Texas-born Chris Whitley and Australian Anne McCue at Club Lingerie on Wednesday were quite different, but both put their own twists on classic musical forms and blended social awareness with individual experience.

Since his 1991 debut, headliner Whitley has shifted from roots-rock to alt-rock to the stripped-down sound of his two current albums, "Weed" and "War Crime Blues." His Lingerie performance featured 90-plus minutes of solo modern folk-blues that conveyed the relentless weight of life during wartime among travails of everyday living and loving.

His stomping foot provided the beat as he accompanied himself on dobro and electric and acoustic guitars. Despite the sinuous intimacy of many numbers, the nightclub setting worked against Whitley's presentation, as normal-level bar chatter intruded on quieter moments. His often striking playing was undermined by mumbled vocals, and the music's hushed-to-midtempo range begged more variety, a demand only partly met by his stark rendition of the Doors' "The Crystal Ship."

McCue, who was born in Sydney but now resides in L.A., offered a roaring take on Jimi Hendrix's "Machine Gun" that reflected her assured guitar-slinger tendencies. Backed by a keyboardist, bassist and drummer, she played an array of pretty guitars, plus six-string banjo and lap steel, with concentrated joy and a deft affinity for slide work.

Tunes from her American debut album, "Roll," incorporated rock, blues, funk and folk-rock, sometimes recalling an appealingly rough-edged Sheryl Crow. Highlights included the Stones-esque title track, the anti-fascism "Nobody's Sleeping," and the serenely bitter "50 Dollar Whore." But other numbers proved less distinctive than her impressive playing.

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