A foreword from the author: When you're a writer, losing your computer is like losing a limb. While most people use health insurance to safeguard their arms and legs, I had no such protection on my laptop. Thus, it is with many apologies (and a healthy amount of embarrassment) that I give you an extremely tardy review of the William Elliott Whitmore show. Better late than never, right?
Lawrence was on fire Saturday night. (No, the Eldridge wasn't burning down again.) An impressive host of musicians descended on Mass Street and rocked through the sweltering night. Kansas City's own Katlyn Conroy helped the Sandbar celebrate its 21st birthday, and Soft Reeds and Be/Non turned on the heat at the Jackpot Saloon. At the center of it all, however, William Elliott Whitmore -- a raspy-voiced purveyor of sexy blues and folk hailing from Iowa -- brought the sweaty-faced, wide-eyed full house at the Bottleneck to its knees.
Though the show time listed for the Whitmore show was eight o'clock, the first band, Weather is Happening, didn't actually start until ten. By then, the Bottleneck was already impressively full of people. As Weather is Happening played, the crowd grew thicker and hotter, and the anticipation for Whitmore's performance became palpable. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Whitmore, while his opening acts played, smoked cigarettes with his fans and manned his own merch table. Smiling, shaking hands, laughing, and hugging old friends, Whitmore was a class act, the whole time.
Next up on the bill was Muscle Worship, a local rock act from Lawrence that continued on with Whitmore the next night to his show in St. Louis. Muscle Worship certainly knew how to cut rock riffs through the thick of a hot, sweaty crowd, and the whole of the Bottleneck seemed to be enjoying their set. The only confusing element was that I momentarily forgot I was at a folk show. I'm not sure if Muscle Worship was simply selected to open because they are friends of Mr. Whitmore's (he actually calls many area musicians close friends and has a strong connection to Lawrence through the Up to Eleven Productions family) or because, well, they rock, but the idiosyncratic effect of such loud, raucous rock music and sultry, smooth blues-folk was only jarring for a brief moment. It's also possible that I was paying too much attention to it; crowd was wholly unbothered, and packed in and rocked out to Muscle Worship with their hands in the air.
No amount of heated rock moshing, however, could have prepared me for the velvety thick experience of a William Elliott Whitmore show. When he took the stage, the crowd packed in flush against the stage, sweat dripping from foreheads and PBR sloshing everywhere. Whitmore sat on a stool close to the edge of the stage, so that fans could literally have reached out and touched him. Though none of them dared, he was offered numerous drinks and shots -- each of which he took not just graciously, but happily. At the beginning of his set, I asked his manager for a set list, to which she sort of laughed and replied, "Oh no, there's no set list." She was certainly right.
Whitmore allowed the crowd to direct most of his show for him, fielding request after request as people shouted out their favorites. As if he knew that someone in the crowd (ahem, me) had been looking for a set list, he even explained into the microphone that he had no such thing, and to keep the requests coming. At one point, Whitmore leaned into the mic and said, "This song's about going to jail." The crowd's cheers got even louder, and as he rocked through the tale of Johnny Law, Whitmore actually broke his guitar. It was at this point that I started to really appreciate how truly laid back and Midwestern Whitmore is--the broken guitar, posing no real problem to such a pro, was simply traded out for his trusty banjo (which he referred to as "Ol' Faithful") and he adjusted the rest of the songs to fit banjo accompaniment with pure talent and ease.
The best part of the night came when several people convinced Whitmore to attempt "Mutiny" sans drummer. A longtime crowd favorite at Whitmore shows, "Mutiny" is a thumping, pulsing ballad about a lazy, drunken ship captain and the plot by his crew to overthrow him. Whitmore had the crowd play collective drummer for the song, and as everyone stomped their feet and clapped their hands, Whitmore deep voice sang out, I don't want to be saved / I just want to be free / and take back what these old devils have taken from me. It was one of the most spine-tingling moments in live music I've experienced this year, and was the point of the show that everyone would recount to each other over post-show cigarettes.
Next up was a cover of Bad Religion's "Don't Pray on Me," and as Whitmore recounted learning about the band in 1987, someone in the crowd felt compelled to expose it as the year they were born. Whitmore coolly poked fun at her: "Did you just say that's the year you were born? No shit... I already had an alcohol problem then. That's fucking cool." Fucking cool, indeed.
For the rest of his set, people continued to pack in tightly around Whitmore, eventually just climbing right onto the sides of the stage, sitting cross-legged as if it was a children's story hour. I bumped into Alex Law, frontman of Deadman Flats, who took notice of my note-taking and offered up his own praise of the William Elliott Whitmore experience. "I bought his CD like five years ago, and loved it, but there's nothing like seeing him live. It's the greatest experience."
After taking another shot from the crowd, Whitmore replied, "I'm kind of seeing double now." He picked around his banjo for a couple more songs, including some new material, and then the show seemed to fade out like the whiskey-drunk haze he undoubtedly was experiencing himself. In an effort to catch all of the fantastic music that Lawrence played host to on Saturday, I was running back and forth for much of the night. But when Whitmore took stage, it was like a slow-motion pause took hold, and I got lost in a bluesy Americana time warp. I might as well have been sitting on a porch overlooking an Iowa cornfield -- and I have a feeling that the rest of the crowd would have followed Whitmore deep into those fields as well.