Roots Vibrations

Chad Whitaker happily bides his time strumming as he waits for the Beach Boys touring bass player to sprain a wrist

Chad Whitaker happily bides his time strumming as he waits for the Beach Boys touring bass player to sprain a wrist

Cactus Tree Motel
Pants Records

Chad Whittaker auditioned for the Beach Boys while driving his 1998 Chevy S-10 pickup down County Road 15 near Lake Minnetonka.

And he even got the job...sort of.

It was 2001, and a friend of a friend told Whittaker that he knew of "a band" that was looking for a bassist who could sing high-pitched harmonies. He didn't know the band's name or anything else about them, but Whittaker decided to give the band's manager a call.

"He starts asking me all these questions like, 'Are you physically fit?' and, 'Do you consider yourself a good-looking guy?' and all this weird stuff," Whittaker recalls.

Becoming somewhat freaked out by the nature of the questions, Whittaker finally asked for the name of the mystery band. He was told it was the Beach Boys. Whittaker says his first thought was that it must be some sort of cover band. Nope. It was indeed Mike Love and crew, and they were looking for a new bass player, particularly one who could sing the stratospheric harmonies in "Good Vibrations."

So Whittaker dashed off to Best Buy to buy a CD with "Good Vibrations" on it, and discovered that he could indeed hit Brian Wilson's notes. He excitedly called back the Beach Boys' manager and professed that he could sing the part. The guy didn't believe him and wanted proof. So Whittaker popped the CD in and sang along into the phone while cruising in his pickup.

And that's how Chad Whittaker became one of the Beach Boys—for all of about a month. Before he ever had a chance to rehearse with the band, the bass player he was picked to replace changed his mind and decided not to leave after all.

"It's been six years, and he's still playing with the band. I check once in a while. I guess technically I could say I was a member, although I never actually played a show," he says with a laugh.

Whittaker recalls his brush with fame while relaxing upstairs in the Dunn Bros. Freight House coffee shop in downtown Minneapolis. Dressed in a faded ruby shirt and with a striped skullcap wrapped tightly around his head, he talks about the experience with a sort of gentle fondness. Although he's a big, burly guy, he gives off a sense of profound humility and patience.

That patience has contributed to the release of a remarkably mature and polished recording of alt-country and roots rock nearly 15 years in the making.

Whittaker has played with a who's who of notable locals over the years (most recently with the Tim Mahoney Band), but is only now, at age 35, releasing his first solo CD, Cactus Tree Motel.

"I've always felt like a sideman. I knew that I had really good ideas that never really quite came across. I finally just decided I wanted to do this and do it my way," he says. "My biggest fear was recording it and then not liking it. But I'm actually very, very happy."

Whittaker says the songs on Cactus Tree Motel date back as far as 1993. Harvesting the relationships with the dozens of bands he has played with over the years, he is joined on the album by local players such as Tim Mahoney, Jon Herchert, Joe Savage, and Dave DeGennaro. The album is named for a lyric in the Joni Mitchell song "Amelia."

"Hands down, my favorite artist of all time is Joni Mitchell, and that's my props to her," he explains.

Also a self-professed "big jam-band fan," Whittaker includes bands such as the Grateful Dead and Phish among his influences (he started the Phish cover band Taboot several years ago). But his own music is much more reminiscent of groups like Semisonic and the Jayhawks.

On "Wandering Lady," Whittaker shows his penchant for sweetly countrified roots rock, with lazy pedal-steel guitar phrases slipping and sliding over drums that shuffle along busily, yet with restraint. Although the song channels a "Layla"-era Eric Clapton, Whittaker's voice sounds somewhat like Seal.

A folkie at heart, Whittaker is at his most intimate on "Silhouette." Accompanied by a competently fingerpicked acoustic guitar, Whittaker whispers, "If I could only be the man you wanted me to be/The wind would fill our sails and bring us to eternity."

"A lot of people tell me that my songs can seem negative and kind of depressing, but they say there is always a little gleam of hope at the end, like things are going to work out," he says.

After adhering to fairly tightly knit song structures for the first nine tracks of the album, Whittaker lets loose on the final one, the seven-minute "Morning," and gets downright jammy with warbling organs bubbling about, tribal drums rumbling away, and Whittaker's wah-wah guitar solos wandering throughout. It even sounds as if there is a didgeridoo thrown into the mix.

When asked why he's still playing music more than 20 years after first picking up the guitar, Whittaker shares the story of how he came down with pneumonia after returning from a short tour with Marlee MacLeod a few years ago. Without health insurance, he resisted going into the hospital—and it almost cost him his life. He says that experience provided an intense clarity of what exactly he wanted to do with his life and why.

"You hear guys say that they started playing music for the chicks, and anyone who tells you otherwise is lying. But I've never been in it for that," he says. "I really just have a real passion to play music and learn. It's the outlet I've had to get things off my chest."

CHAD WHITTAKER performs a CD-release party with Pat McCurdy on FRIDAY, NOVEMBER 16, at the FINE LINE MUSIC CAFE; 612.338.8100