Fricke's Picks: Chris Whitley, Tall Firs and Amplified Heat

In April 2005, Texas-born haunted- blues singer- songwriter and slide guitarist Chris Whitley made an album in Australia with local singer- guitarist Jeff Lang: Dislocation Blues (Rounder), first issued there last year and now available domestically. Eight months after those sessions, Whitley was dead at forty-five of lung cancer. At the time of this recording, Whitley -- who had previously done battle with drugs and desperation and won -- did not know he was fatally ill. In fact, Whitley's low-to-the-ground growl and the bittersweet whine of his National steel guitar resonate with the hardened wisdom and fighting optimism of a man who lived the blues too well but also lived to tell about it. "Where can the heretic call home?" Whitley asks with blunt exhaustion in his title song, then answers the question with stark, moving gratitude in a Delta-funk spin on Prince's "Forever in My Life." Lang sings and tangles on slide with Whitley like a blood relative, but this record is Whitley's triumph -- a gritty lesson in how to make the most of each day and breath you have left.

A gently uplifting highlight of my recent South by Southwest weekend in Austin, Texas, was an afternoon set at the record store End of an Ear by Tall Firs -- singer-guitarists Dave Mies and Aaron Mullan and drummer Ryan Sawyer. The music was a welcome, restorative peace amid the big rock and nonstop promo: a psychedelic-folk tangle of spider-leg-guitar arpeggios and hazy, bong-room singalong harmonies. The Brooklyn trio's debut album, Tall Firs (Ecstatic Peace), is even more of a whisper, like Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation reduced to nothing but daydream. There are flashes of Pavement's ragged acid romanticism in bare-minimum space-outs like "Go Whiskey," "The Breeze" and "Soldier On," but also plenty of the genuine San Francisco article, particularly the '67 levitation of Jefferson Airplane's "Comin' Back to Me" and the compact sparkle of the Grateful Dead's original seven-inch version of "Dark Star."

Another trio that knocked me out at SXSW, with more extreme prejudice, was Amplified Heat -- Hispanic-American brothers Jim, Gian and Chris Ortiz on guitar and vocals, bass and vocals, and drums, respectively -- who destroyed a smaller crowd than they deserved with a boogie-war vengeance. Rock dreams that quickly came to mind: Stevie Ray Vaughan fronting the Groundhogs; ZZ Top with Blue Cheer running in their veins. Recommended until Amplified Heat release a new full-length album this year: their 2003 EP Amplified Heat (Arclight), recently reissued with a new mix and sounding a lot like what blew me back that night.