Hot Night in Dulli’s Inferno

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“He’s a pimp.”

“He is the man!”

You tend to hear a lot of this whenever Greg Dulli is in the house. Holding court—Dulli is the exalted leader of an international underground cult of horny young bucks who would give their left nut for five minutes in his shoes. Cigarette dangling—he is the dream lover of women around the world who should know better. Unapologetic—he takes every crowd by the throat and taunts and teases them; ultimately, owning them. He might steal your girlfriend, but, son, you won’t care. He’ll break your heart, but baby, you’ll hand it to him again and again. A toxic, exotic narcotic—this is, as his Web site warns you, Dulli’s Inferno.

The Twilight Singers rolled into the Theatre of the Living Arts (TLA) in Philadelphia on May 30 in support of their latest stunner, Powder Burns (One Little Indian). A freakishly early heat wave had a stranglehold on the city, and to breathe was like having your face wrapped tightly in plastic wrap. The grit and grime of South Philadelphia coated the skin like twelve layers of thick crusty paste; the once-relevant South Street doused in the smell of shit and hopelessness. In other words, it was Twilight time.

Jeff Klein took the stage first. From Austin, Texas, Klein has built a die-hard following of fans and critics thanks to his bare-knuckled songwriting and self-described “Southern Gothic R&B” style. With guitar in hand (no backing band), Klein hit the disappointingly sparse (but welcoming) TLA crowd hard, opening with “Pity” from his 2005 release, The Hustler (One Little Indian). “Just breathe into my mouth,” he sighed. “I can’t sleep alone without choking.”

Hearing Klein live, you can feel the common threads that connect him to Dulli, who co-produced Hustler in New Orleans with Twilight collaborator Mike Napolitano. Not only in the R&B roots, but also in the menacing stories he tells. Life and love in mousetrap towns ain’t pretty. Klein may try to love again, but you know it will end with a restraining order and one-way police escort out of the county. “It’s about time I introduced you to the person I really am,” he growled in “Kiss and Tell.” Introduce yourself to Jeff Klein either live or through his releases Everybody Loves a Winner and The Hustler.

Next to take the stage was Italy’s Afterhours. Acclaimed musical craftsmen from Milan, Afterhours have long established themselves in their home country as an innovative supergroup. Led by recent Dulli collaborator Manuel Agnelli (with Giorgio Ciccarelli, keyboards; Dario Ciffo, violin; Giorgio Prette, drums; and Andrea Viti, bass), the band took the stage like lambs but quickly ripped into a balls-on 45-minute set that sucked the growing crowd into a thunderous, rock ‘n roll funnel cloud. Holy hell—where did these guys come from and how quickly can I get my hands on everything they’ve ever released?

From the opening salvo “Ballad for My Little Hyena,” the band lit into “White Widow,” a variation of “My Time (Has Come)” off of TS’ Powder Burns, co-written by Dulli and Agnelli. Switching back and forth between English and Italian for the remainder of their set (the band’s latest release, Ballads for Little Hyenas, also from One Little Indian, is their first release recorded in English as well as Italian), the band’s boyish appearance and good-natured interaction with the crowd belied their face-punching performance, which set the bar staggeringly high for the headliner. If in 30 years you heard that Greg Dulli’s five sons had started a band, Afterhours is what you’d hope for.

Lights out and we’re entering Dulli’s Den of Iniquity, as dark as any decadent dive bar on lower Decatur. Resplendent with incense, Oriental rug, candelabra, and bobble-head Jesus doll—a Marshall amp black-taped so it reads “Harsh”—the now-packed house welcomes Dulli and bandmates Scott Ford, bass; Bobby McIntyre, drums; Dave Rosser, guitar; and Afterhours’ Agnelli on keyboards with a fury over the strains of the instrumental “Through the Waves.” His drink raised in greeting, the fearless leader has returned—clean and among the living for the first time in years.

The band kicks immediately into “I’m Ready,” the second track from Powder Burns. It’s early in the tour, but the band is tight. Buoyed by the crowd—most of whom have already memorized Powder Burns even though it’s barely a month old—Dulli works the stage like a shaman, controlling the din with a smile, a shimmy, a shared cigarette.

In characteristic fashion, the set list is packed with original Twilight material, a few Whigs favorites (though no “Going to Town”—for shame!), eclectic covers, and enough carefully placed digressions to keep the crowd on its toes. With “66” comes the now-famous “Little Red Corvette” bridge; Aerosmith’s “Dream On” morphs into “Love”; “Papillon” ends with a nod to Steve Miller’s “The Joker”; and Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” flows into “The Killer,” which climaxes into a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”

Unfortunately, the show climaxed after only one encore—which, after the building rhythm and groove of the night’s set, felt a little too close to a premature ejaculation. Other shows were treated to two and three returns to the stage. Don’t know if it was the band’s decision or a venue curfew—but we’ll expect you to make it up to us when you come back in the fall, St. Gregory. Bring “Going to Town”; I need to get my stroll on, baby.

Heather Chakiris

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