Dhigging the Whigs
The Afghan Whigs prove that the smaller the club, the bigger the show
By Gina Arnold
IN APRIL, I had to go to England for an important family gathering. Before leaving, I learned that my favorite band in the world, the Afghan Whigs, would be in Europe at the same time, and I immediately made plans to see them play in Amsterdam. Once I got to England, however, everything changed. Family obligations took precedence; and it turned out that a quick trip to Amsterdam would cost 160 pounds–or about $250. Such is my love for the Whigs, I was still up for the journey, but as my family closed in around me, it became increasingly clear I wasn’t going to Holland anytime soon.
Thus it came to pass that on the night the Whigs played Amsterdam, I was safe at home in West London, rocking the newest Arnold baby to sleep, eating take-out Indian and watching the Manchester Newcastle soccer game on telly. Outwardly, I appeared calm and pleasant, but inside, I was seething with thwarted fury, feeling all resentful and sad. That night, I lay awake in agony. I felt just like I felt long ago as a teenager, when my Mom forbade my friend and me to borrow the car to drive to San Francisco to see a show where we’d heard that Bruce Springsteen might show up.
Life should probably have taken away my desire to do mad things alone like that, but it hasn’t. And as I waited for the Afghan Whigs to take the stage at the Cactus Club last Wednesday, I was still full of regrets for that lost Dutch show. To see them in San Jose seemed like a comedown, particularly since the show was so sparsely attended.
Judging by the lack of excitement surrounding the Cincinnati band’s appearance, the days when SubPop’s cachet alone sold out shows like this are forever over. Bands like the Whigs–SubPop’s first non-Seattle band and, along with Mudhoney and the Fluid, one of the three flagship acts that originally defined the sonic boundaries of the term “grunge”–have lost their old SupPop fans without gaining any new ones from the minimal airplay they now get on MTV, KOME and Live 105.
Even critics, who fawned all over the band’s 1994 tour de force, Gentlemen (Elektra), don’t seem to want to hear about the Whigs anymore; they’re now all into lounge music or trip-hop or something. At best, they say they don’t like the Whigs’ brand-new record, Black Love, because it’s either “too much like” or “not as good as” Gentlemen. Grunge is dead, but the Whigs are aflame, busy burying brilliant, scary, sexy couplets in a haze of gorgeous noise.
THEY TOOK the stage at the Cactus just before 11pm, eight members strong–augmented by cello, keyboards, percussion and an extra vocalist. On a good night–and make no mistake, San Jose’s show was a very good night–this band can seize an ordinary audience by its guts and made it shake and tremble with delight. And beginning with “Crime Scene, Pt. I” and “My Enemy,” from Black Love, that’s what they proceeded to do.
Next up, “You My Flower” (from 1990’s Up in It) slid into Prince’s “When Doves Cry,” and then toaster Sean Smith came on to help out with the distinctly soul-inflected grooves of “Blame, Etc.” and the band caught fire and stayed that way for the rest of the night. “Debonair,” a minor hit from 1994, stoked the crowd, and “What Jail Is Like,” augmented by keyboardist Harold Chichester (formerly of the Royal Crescent Mob and now of opening act Howlin’ Maggie) put the seal on it.
Even singer Greg Dulli’s extreme sexiness was almost–not quite but almost–obliterated by his band’s musical prowess. “Ladies, let me introduce myself/I’ve got a dick for a brain/and my brain/is going to sell my ass to you,” he sings on “Be Sweet,” and let’s just say, it’s not a hard sell. Midway through a Whigs set, the inner thighs of both boys and girls start to feel a bit like jelly.
Sadly for Dulli, mere sexiness per se is not at a premium in the alternarock world; quite the opposite in fact. And the San Jose show also brought up another one of the great paradoxes about rock, i.e., the better a band gets, the more people like them, but the more people like them, the less enjoyable their shows.
This doesn’t mean one should wish one’s favorite bands ill; the Whigs deserve far more commercial success than they’ve had. But it’s still nice to see them in such a splendidly close setting as the Cactus, among the 50 or 60 people who are the band’s truest fans. Thus, the show the Whigs played the night before at the 1,200-seat Fillmore in San Francisco, though paradoxically more expensive, was just a little less scintillating. And when a band gets up to Shoreline–where the Afghan Whigs will play at Live-105’s BFD on June 14–they become distinctly unenergized, even bad.
But a good night at the Cactus Club is as good as it gets, as intimate and immediate as those secret, sweaty, shirtless, homoerotic nights in Seattle of old, the ones that made such an impact on the world back in 1992. And the Whigs seemed to be aware of this history–at least, they played like they were.
The San Jose show was four songs shorter and 15 minutes longer than the one at the Fillmore, but what it lacked in songs (specifically, “Retarded,” “Milez Iz Dead,” “Vampire Moon” and a fabulous cover of TLC’s “Creep”), it made up for in quality. After all, Dulli’s jazzed-up rendition of the Tin Man’s song from The Wizard of Oz (“If I Only Had a Heart”) was a highlight–not of all the Whigs shows I have seen, but of all rock shows I have ever seen.
Alas, this being a school night, round about midnight, half the audience turned into pumpkins and split for home, at which point the band really got down and dirty. Smack in the middle of “Turn on the Water,” the song slipped into “Gimme Shelter,” then into PJ Harvey’s “Sheela Na Gig,” then back to “Turn on the Water.” (Linking the Whigs’ song, based on the spurious political notion that “a rising tide raises all boats,” with the Rolling Stones’ sinister caveat that “war, children, is just a kiss away” shows a kind of depth and genius that never gets appreciated.)
Then the band began to play “Superfly” and the now-tiny audience went straight to heaven and stayed there. A friend of mine had speculated that the only trouble with the otherwise flawless Fillmore show had been that the Whigs deliberately interrupted two orgasmic moments to go offstage to get ready for encores. But the Cactus Club’s minuteness meant the Whigs never left the stage. Hence, after reaching an emotional zenith with the song “Fountain and Fairfax” (which marked the end of the “regular” set in San Francisco), Dulli simply looked out at the adoring crowd, grinned and asked, “Do you guys want to hear some more?”
Us, in unison: “YEEESSSS!”
Dulli: “Will you do whatever I ask you to?”
Dulli: “Will you all take off your clothes and mosh naked for me?”
At which point, artist and audience alike dissolved into giggles, and the band tore into the songs “Bulletproof” and “Faded,” keening and careening up a mountain of glorious melody. And suddenly, as Dulli rolled on the floor, lightly touching his crotch and crooning, all my regrets for that lost Amsterdam show suddenly dissipated into thin air. Up like smoke–or like the steam produced by 60 sweaty bodies packed into a small club on a rainy and windswept night. For once, it seems that Dorothy was right: sometimes there really is no place like home.