He donned a grey pork pie hat, blue button-up and a level humility and appreciation that can be rare today. He loves his fans. "I fight for them, every one of them," he exclaimed. And they love him right back. He walked through the packed show during Austin Lucas' set, admiring his friend. For all the die-hard fans here, no one seemed to notice Whitmore; he was an apparition of a face in the crowd. Which is the way he prefers it.
Opening act Austin Lucas is a singer-songwriter, who looks young but has accomplished much, having toured with the likes of Chuck Ragan, Frank Turner and Tim Barry. Evoking the ferocity of a punk ethos while in the guise of a traditional '70s country singer, his lines were heartfelt-folk -- he has scored album cuts with Alison Krauss -- and a little Dolly Parton sass to boot.
Lucas veered into emo-inspired lines, building lyric upon lyric, and offering up more intricate and prettier storytelling. "When I was a much younger man in a town full of dead factories," he lamented, really going for the jugular, with no reconciliation for his subject matter.
His guitar playing is a hammer banged on an anvil, with lyrics copping a dashboard confessional feel -- if your dashboard happens to be a rusted-out '47 Chevy Apache, with busted rearview mirrors and a full tank of gas. A true diamond for country and alt-punk fans alike, Lucas is a small-town heart with a big-town sound.
Then came Whitmore. Sitting in a chair on the Off Broadway stage, he adjusted the kickdrum. "Can we go ahead and get started," he asked the soundman. The crowd responded. He stomped the bass drum and plowed his banjo with backwoods, twang-laden chords.
Whitmore's music is folk as hell, with sparse chord changes, no showing off. He concentrates his efforts as a storyteller from another time. Every song is a miniature soundtrack for a Daniel Woodrell novel: minimalist, midwestern tunes, starkly rooted in the farmlands of protest folk and bluegrass.
He sings while playing guitar, banjo and kick-drum. Sometimes he just sings a cappella, while the fans sing along with him. Unless you've staked a claim by the stage, it can be hard to see him in a crowded club.
But when you come to see Whitmore play, you don't come to see the man; you come to hear the voice.
For all its old-timey glory, his voice is a modern technological marvel, a time machine, powered by steam, transporting you to a place that your grandparents and their kin cut their teeth on. One of sifting dirty water through wells, lost loves dead and gone in pine boxes, and long walks to the gallows. "One man's story is another man's shame," he croaked.
None of this would work as well as it does if it weren't for Whitmore's unique timbre; it does all of the heavy lifting. He is this generation's Tom Waits, minus the jazz influence, but just as dark and brooding as a hollering pine. It's a voice that shovels coal, a barreling, tractor engine of a voice, husking away at thrice its age.
How vocal chords could have carried him as far as they have is remarkable. Whitmore spent the earliest peak of his career on Southern records before moving to the Anti- label in 2009 for his latest work. It's been three years since a new album, but he shared a new song that he's still "working on." You get the sense that all this man does is work. He's so old-school; he tweets using a notebook and pen.
The crowd couldn't get enough. By the middle of the set, he invited fans to sit onstage with him as he played, which was a perfect segue into his next song, "Johnny Law," a foot-through-the-floor, anti-authority romp and stomp. The son of soil had just summoned an earthquake.
By the time he made it to "Field Song," singing "three square meals and a living wage," the crowd lost its collective shit. These are Boss lyrics at their best, straight from the heartland of the heart itself.
His encore, "Old Devils," inspired a cacophony of hoots and hollers so loud that it just about cracked the foundation of the building. That's when I realized, Whitmore didn't come to play a show; he came to tear the place down and take back the land.