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Dulli Live Review: Chicago

by John Dugan, Time Out Chicago

In the near future, GQ readers will be advised that alongside their Hemingway, great bottles of bourbon and bespoke suits, they must have a few great Greg Dulli albums within arm’s reach at all times, or at least, the end of the night. Dulli, as frontman for the Afghan Whigs and now with his solo vehicle the Twilight Singers, has something of a corner market on extreme manhood, in which his demons and succubi sway him as often to ecstasy as to desperation. That’s not say Dulli’s worldview only speaks to men, either, just that it’s closer to essential listening for them. Dulli’s demons never were contrived; he seemed to bait them in life with the Whigs, and his propensity for excess was well known. But as a showman and a conductor of a great night of live music, Dulli was unequaled in the ’90s with the Whigs, bringing the audience up and down, to New Orleans, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Kentucky and places in between, while inserting tributes to Prince, Professor Longhair, Marvin Gaye and Squirrel Bait in the set as he saw fit. And the Whigs had Rick McCollum.

Last night, Dulli was just as much the showman but had a slightly different air about him. He sounded determined and even with an acoustic band that shifted between three and four pieces—cello/violin, acoustic guitar and a guest bassist (get to that in a minute). While debauchery may still be in Dulli’s lyrical vocabulary, he doesn’t seem to be currently practicing any dark arts—after the show, backstage, he mentioned that he’d quit smoking. But last night, Dulli was howling like a lone wolf on a prairie—strumming like his life depended on it and rehearsed to a knife edge. I hardly heard a second vocal, electric piano note or guitar chord even slightly out of place. Dulli’s seriousness of purpose and lengthy set allowed the tunes to step forward in front of the man—and even the Twilight Singers’ songs, which have grown on me slowly, blossomed in the frantic acoustic set.

As always, an awareness of the commerce, addiction and sex equation is Dulli’s raw material in songs like “Forty Dollars” in which Dulli offers/offers to buy “love for sale” and on “Bonnie Brae” in which one’s pay from a master gets taken away. Dulli’s cover tune instincts were played down—he threw in a brilliantly chosen Bjork cover (”Hyperballad”) and tagged the end of one song with Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”

In a surprise move, Dulli brought Afghan Whigs bassist John Curley (also my second cousin, incidentally) on stage for roughly half-a-dozen Afghan Whigs numbers, including “What Jail is Like.” Curley contributed his masterful, R&B-inflected low-end, creating a natural highpoint to the proceedings. He left the stage to chants of “Johnny” from a stunned, enraptured room.

Dulli, still a combination of gentleman and wiseass, though somewhat subdued in that regards, asked to keep the lights low, remarked “this place looks like a K-mart,” and when a fan fainted during the encore, couldn’t help himself from dropping a “cleanup on aisle four” in before asking if the guy was okay. Otherwise, however, Dulli seemed to keep the high jinks to a minimum on this first week of his first acoustic tour.

Dulli’s crowd, though it has largely given up leather jackets and Sub Pop tees for Dockers, Zegna and Marc Jacobs, was out in force and not about to go quietly with just an hour and a half of tunes. The band did one encore before retiring to the downstairs of the club, then with the lights down for more than minutes and Joe Shanahan pouring the boys glasses of an organic concoction they dubbed “Agave Marias,” it agreed to do another if Shanahan found the joint more than three-quarters full. He looked and it was. The club owner took the stage and wound up the louder-than-ever audience on the mic—a move, he told me, he’s never pulled at the Double Door before. Dulli and company returned for three more tunes including “Powder Burns” and, with Curley joining in again, a tribute to Dulli’s late friend Alex Chilton, Big Star’s “Take Care.”

An intimate night with Dulli is still a stormy affair—though far from a hellish one. He’s still playing like bad men might come take him away any moment and put him in the ground somewhere, and that’s not mellow, that’s who the man is.

Tourmate Craig Wedren, the frontman for reunited-last-year D.C./NYC band Shudder to Think, took the acoustic/solo format to a different, more experimental place even as he wove us in among songs such as “Hit Liquor” from his band’s Pony Express Record and songs he’d written for film soundtracks such as Laurel Canyon. Wedren looped his own vocals and showcased his multi-octave, almost operatic range, sang to sparse electronic beats at one point and emphasized the staccato off rhythm in his guitar playing on “X-French Tee Shirt,” but balanced the art-rock touches with distinctive drawn-out vocal melodies. That said, there’s probably a more attentive audience out there for Wedren’s innovations. He should come back, soon.

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