William Elliott Whitmore: One Man’s Shame
For some members of my family, November 12, 2006 is an almost legendary date. On that day, I took my then 16 year old son to a show at the Bowery Ballroom in lower Manhattan. He had been jealous of the fact that I had been to some great shows there, but they were all 18 and over shows, so he couldn’t come. I saw that the Bowery Ballroom was having a 16 and over show on that November night, a Sunday, featuring Lucero, a band from which I had heard maybe one or two songs, with two openers, William Elliott Whitmore and Rocky Votolato, about whom I was completely ignorant. But I got tickets and we went. It was an incredible show, notwithstanding that my wife, trying to display good parenting, called me and insisted that we leave early because it was a school night for my son, meaning that we missed Lucero’s encore. I’m pretty much over that. Really.
Since then, Lucero has become one of my (and my son’s) favorite bands, and Rocky Votolato has become one of his real favorites (he actually won Rocky’s guitar in a contest and has met him a couple of times at shows), but that night I was truly struck by William Elliott Whitmore.
Whitmore is a young guy who sounds like an old guy. He has a deep, weary voice that is accurately described by Allmusic as sounding “like the reincarnation of an old gospel preacher from the 1920s” and “the one Tom Waits has been after for years”. It is distinctive, memorable and, to me, irresistible. He is from, and still lives in, southeastern Iowa and often writes songs set in that area, steeped in death, sin and redemption. Generally, he performs with a banjo, that he often strums more like a guitar, or a guitar (that he also strums like a guitar). Percussion is supplied by his stamping feet or his hand hitting the banjo or guitar. I found his performance on that November night to be enthralling and am disappointed that I haven’t been able to see him again since.
I had trouble deciding what Whitmore song to pick, so first I decided that it would be a song from “Song of the Blackbird,” which was released a few months before the Bowery Ballroom show, and then this one jumped out at me. It has a feeling of dread and fear, speaks of death, faith and violence, and it is mesmerizing.